A good cast and the best of intentions cannot save the 1970s Boston school busing melodrama “The Walk” from its excesses. Funereal pacing, characters that are simplistic “types” and dialogue that recycles cliches and bromides pretty much overwhelm it.
But as we’re still staring a spittle-spitting screaming bigots on TV and doom-scrolling the latest racist mass shooting on Twitter, maybe it’s worth taking a look at how this skirmish from the end of America’s “civil rights era” played out.
“Why do you hate us?” and “What is WRONG with these people?” may be screenplay cliches. But the questions still beg for answers.
Director and co-writer Daniel Adams has been around since the start of Sandra Bullock’s career (“A Fool and His Money”), churning out B-movies of the sentimental and aged (“The Golden Boys,””The Lightkeepers”) or Mel Gibson after-the-fall actioners (“Panama”). He may have had the ambition to take a shot a saying something about race in America through its troubled recent history, but not the chops.
Here’s the movie in a single corny line. “Liberal Massachusetts ain’t no better than Confederate Alabama.”
Terrence Howard, playing a widowed paramedic and father of a teen (Lovie Simone) about to be bussed to a “white” school in “Southie” (South Boston) utters it, a thesis statement at the beginning of a story set the summer leading up to the 1974 court-ordered busing to achieve desegregation of Boston’s urban (“poor”) schools.
The film follows this Black father and daughter, a white “Southie” cop (Justin Chatwin), his immigrant wife (Anastasiya Mitrunen) and Southie High daughter Kate (Katie Douglas) and peripherally, the goings on inside the Southie gang led by McLoughlin (Malcolm McDowell) whose lieutenant (Jeremy Piven in prison tats and Fu Manchu) just got out of the penitentiary.
The mob underling has a rough and hotheaded son (Matthew Blade) who has taken an interest in the cop’s daughter. The officer and his wife may have grown up rough, but they preach tolerance. That doesn’t keep their pretty 17 year-old from dropping the N-word and worse in their house. Her “rebellion” is the worst kind.
Adams sketches in characters that he’s set up as “types” and tropes. Whatever modern expectations dictate in terms of a balanced script, with every character painted in shades of gray, gives way to dated and simplistic archetypes. The white father has to stand up to the ugliness that shaped him and the gang that threatens him. The Black father has to keep his cool in the face of grim provocations, “stay in control when white people are out of control.”
That’s a good line and righteous sentiment to play up. But it contributes to a film that feels predigested, a movie that’s so over-familiar that it’s made up its mind and our minds for us as well.
On-the-nose casting contributes to this. Close your eyes, and you can imagine everything about Howard’s character, every action, every bullet-point sermon, even the moment when he breaks into tears.
Chatwin, best known for TV work in “Shameless,” “Orphan Black” and “American Gothic,” gets more attention and screen time playing a “good cop” who has rejected his upbringing. Officer Coughlin may embrace the “We gotta integrate, but this ain’t the way to do it” mentality, but who treats the job as a higher calling when “This whole city is angry.”
McDowell oozes aged menace, and Piven — cast against type — is a convincing older goon.
The younger players are good enough that you kind of wish they’d been the whole focus, but that indie film would be impossible to finance.
The gold standard for racial tolerance prevailing through racial strife movies is 2019’s “The Best of Enemies,” and as controversial and roiled as Boston’s citywide 1970s meltdown was, you can’t tell me a really good movie couldn’t come out of that.
But from its opening scenes, with each set of kids walking to school, stopping to chat with neighborhood characters — the mob boss, the mother of the mobster in prison, or for the Black kids, a pimp who wants to talk “business” with teenaged Wendy — “The Walk” opts for “really earnest” but “really dated and tired” instead.
Rating: R for language throughout including racial slurs, and some violence
Cast: Justin Chatwin, Terrence Howard, Lovie Simone, Katie Douglas, Anastasiya Mitrunen, Matthew Blade, Jeremy Piven and Malcolm McDowell
Credits: Directed by Daniel Adams, scripted by George Powell and Daniel Adams. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:44