(NNPA) – “When our child is killed we feel guilt. We feel like failures,” says the leader of a women’s group devoted to mothers whose children have been murdered. “Get to acceptance, so you can get on with life.” Those words of comfort and guidance are lost on Lila (Oscar-nominee Viola Davis) in this oddly affecting, but always engaging drama/crime/thriller that is themed around a topical subject but takes viewers in an unpredictable direction.
This project started with actress/producer Viola Davis and screenwriter Pat Gilfillan, who spent two years interviewing mothers of murdered children to prep for the script. Davis and co-star Jennifer Lopez worked together originally on the film Out of Sight back in 1998. Director Charles Stone III made an auspicious film debut with the popular film Drumline. They are the A-team that pulled this very female appealing film together along with funding from Lifetime Networks. What’s on view is a low-budget film that fluctuates between a cable movie and an indie art film. Consistently, it is the latter element that saves the movie, along with Ms. Davis, who is up to the challenge of carrying 94 minutes of mama drama on her shoulders.
Told in flashbacks that don’t really ruffle the story’s inner clock, Lila (Davis), a single mom and public-records worker lives with her 18-year-old son, Stephon (Aml Ameen, Beyond the Lights), and her younger son, Justin (Ron Caldwell). They are a close-knit family. Lila is loving, and her sons feed off her attempts to talk in their young hip lexicon while still being a taskmaster mom. There is no preparation for the night Stephon is gunned down on a street corner. Shot dead in a drive-by killing meant for someone else. Lila grieves. She seeks support at the “Mothers of Young Angels” support-group meetings.
At one of the sessions, she meets Eve Rafael (Lopez), who lost her daughter to a crime. Eve becomes Lila’s sponsor and the two strike up a friendship. Both are hurt. Both are angry. Neither has seen the police department or the justice system find the killers of their children, and Eve is extremely pessimistic about the police’s efforts: “They don’t think about us. Hell, they don’t even see us.” From a thought, to action, to involvement in their own investigation, the two ladies, with a revolver in tow and not much of a conscience, seek out leads, take names, confront suspects and let the bodies fall where they may.
If this film had stuck to a Lifetime Original series tone, what follows would be laughable. Instead, thanks to Patrick Gilfillan’s unpredictable script, Charles Stone III’s spot on direction, Wyatt Garfield’s (Beasts of the Southern Wild) moody cinematography and Robert K. Lambert’s (Three Kings) well-paced editing, what unfolds is an engaging, twisted, and shockingly understated, slightly dreamy revenge movie lead by two feminine women who have the balls of a stevedore.
Jenny from the Block wears too much makeup for a movie like this, but she is passable as the temptress Eve, who leads Lila down a bloody path of murder. Shea Whigham (The Wolf of Wall Street) as the investigating Detective Hollister, who is by-the-book and consequently inept, is the one who can unravel the mystery of the street hoods who are being popped like stuff pigeons in a shooting gallery. Andre Royo (The Wire), his partner, is an articulate and politically ambitious cop who wants to take the case in another direction. Julius Tennon portrays Ben, the guy down the street who tries to mend Lila’s broken heart; he’s also Davis’ husband. There is a long list of supporting actors who play gang members; all are good, none stand out. They do their job. They act tough and take a bullet.
The strange script and steady direction would be nothing without an actress of Davis’ caliber. She is raw. Her emotions run the gamut. You believe Lila loves her children, is capable of being duplicitous to inquiring cops and able to stand up to a thug, in imperfect and sometimes implausible ways (e.g. The film’s climax).
There are times when the proceedings have the feel and methodical pacing of a foreign indie film. This almost intangible quality rarely wavers. You will stick with this film and its main characters even if you have to suspend your disbelief every now and then. After a revelation towards the end that puts the proceedings in a different light, your patience will be rewarded. The footage rolls to an ending that is satisfying and makes the time it takes to watch this crime thriller evolve worth the effort. Lila & Eve will someday be a great cable movie. For right now it is a compelling indie film.
By Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic