It might not be the best time to release a movie built around attacks of conscience. That’s a concept that’s taken a beating in the United States in recent years. We’re not living in Frank Capra’s America any more.
But here is “Foster Boy,” a kind of John Grisham Lite “feel good” legal drama with healthy helpings of melodrama, courtroom shenanigans and thriller touches. It’s “just a movie.” Still, with some very good performances, a couple of nice twists and a righteous cause — questioning the privatization of states’ foster care systems — it at least will make you nostalgic for the days when we could at least hope the corporately-coddled and sold-out might do the right thing.
Matthew Modine is the sell-out at the center of all this. He sips his fine wine in his Architectural Digest home, dons a custom-tailored suit and takes limos and corporate jets wherever his corporate clients need him, wherever he’s licensed to practice.
But Michael Trainer rues the day he pops into a Chicago courtroom, fresh off the jet from LA, to argue a case in front of Judge Taylor (Louis Gossett Jr.). Sure, he wins. But Taylor’s in…a mood.
“Have you ever done anything for anybody but yourself?” he grouses. That’s when he orders the high powered/perfectly-put-together corporate attorney to take on, pro bono, a civil suit involving a young man (Shane Paul McGhie) brought up in the hearing after Trainer’s.
Jamal Randolph was before the judge on a state matter. He’s in jail, nearing the end of another short sentence. But he has a civil case before the same court. His adoptive mother (Michael Hyatt) says they haven’t been able to find an attorney. Judge Taylor, putting his finger on the scales of justice, solves that problem with a thump of his gavel.
Trainer’s co-counsel mutters “How you think this kid is going to present?”
“Like a thug,” the rich attorney at law fumes.
There are things in this Jay Paul Deratany script that you don’t see in your typical courtroom drama. While shout-offs with a heavy-handed judge, questioning witnesses who’ve left the stand and are just sitting in the courtroom, with the judge allowing all this, may occasionally happen, it feels far-fetched. Get used to it.
Jamal was abused, repeatedly, while in foster care. He says the worst of it came when the private company running child placement for Illinois parked a known abuser client in a foster home Jamal was already in, and ignored his warnings and pleas for help.
Now he’s suing Bellcore and the woman who placed him in harm’s way — now a higher up there (Julie Benz) — for damages.
The Grisham touches are showing Jamal tased in court, in front of the jury, the illegal and downright violent measures that company (“Allie McBeal’s” Greg Germann is their CEO) undertakes to intimidate Jamal and Trainer, the over-the-transom “evidence” slipped to the Good Guys.
The Deratany touches are all the times Gossett’s judge allows the countless courtroom irregularities to slide, letting the pretty co-counsel (Lex Scott Davis) braid Jamal’s hair, and having Jamal read from his notebooks “of rhymes” — rapping testimony from his journals that relate his abuse.
But McGhie (TV’s “Unbelievable”) and Modine buy in — hard.
McGhie bites off every bitter, resentful line this kid spits at “Three Piece,” his nasty nickname for the reluctant “suit” defending him.
And Modine makes his character’s arc or journey in the story not some fairytale of compassion, but a proud, callous and rich jerk who gets his back up — first at the judge, then at his client, then at the creeps who are rolling over that client.
“One thing I don’t do is LOSE.”
The “white savior” trope may be passe, but Jamal’s race isn’t what the story’s about. Foster care systems being privatized deal with all races of children, and aren’t as accountable as a state entity would be with any of them.
They’ve made an uneven melodrama that’s easier to get behind than to endorse for its cinematic realism. But I will. Maybe for old time’s sake.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, violence
Cast: Matthew Modine, Shane Paul McGhie, Louis Gossett Jr., Michael Hyatt, Julie Benz, Lex Scott Davis, Michael Beach, Greg Germann and Amy Brenneman
Credits: Directed by Youssef Delara, script by Jay Paul Deratany. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:49