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With: Romany Malco, Regina Hall, Alkoya Brunson, Shannon Dang, Tami Roman, Baadja-Lyne Odums, Tyler Cassidy
Written by: Romany Malco
Directed by: Romany Malco
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 93
Date: 07/31/2020

Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Coach Starter

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Character actor Romany Malco, who is perhaps best known as "Jay" in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Conrad Shepard on TV's Weeds, makes his feature writing and directing debut with Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison.

That's quite a title, and, as the colon implies, it's a documentary, or rather, a mockumentary. The film opened last week in drive-ins and debuts VOD and digital on July 31, 2020.

Tijuana "T.J." Jackson (Malco) is in prison for perhaps the sixth or seventh time, and wants to be a world famous motivational speaker, while film student Rachel Cho (Shannon Dang) has chosen to make her ten-minute documentary about him.

She finds that he is fast-talking and perhaps a bit of a con man, but also very convincing, and, yes, very possibly a good life coach.

She films his release from prison. He gets home to a not-so-warm welcome from his mother (Lyne Odums) and sister Sharea (Tami Roman), and to his room, which, hilariously, shows just how little he has been able to adjust to life on the outside.

Later, he convinces Rachel that her film needs to keep going. It really needs to be feature-length.

Along with T.J.'s brainy nephew Lil' Eric (Alkoya Brunson), they launch Jackson's career, first going out and talking to ordinary folks. This seems to go well, until Rachel and Lil' Eric learn that T.J. was charging people. ("I made 137 bucks!" he says proudly.)

To make matters more complicated, T.J.'s parole officer is Cheryl (Regina Hall), an ex-girlfriend, with whom there's still some lingering attraction. Then, an opportunity comes up across the state line, which could send T.J. right back to prison.

Truthfully, Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison isn't quite a slam-dunk. Its tone wobbles here and there, never quite becoming as hilarious or as touching as it hopes, though it does come close.

Malco rests most of the movie's burden on T.J.'s fast patter, which can be alternately funny, disorienting, and distancing. He blunders into bad situations, and his arrogance makes it hard to feel sorry for him.

Yet, eventually, this fluctuating series of character traits does more or less come together in a clumsy human way, and T.J. becomes someone to root for.

The other characters are well-cast and well-written, and help the film take shape. Hall (Support the Girls) is always great to see. As the nephew, Brunson makes a great foil for T.J., and Dang is an essential presence as the filmmaker at the edges of the story, becoming more and more involved.

It's also a good deal more organic and believable than many mockumentaries, staying consistently true to the format.

At times the movie recalls the notorious 1992 Belgian film Man Bites Dog, in which a cunning, charming serial killer coaxes a film crew, who are following him, to become accomplices.

That's probably not the vibe that Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison was aiming for, but it uses a similar dynamic to acknowledge human foibles as well as celebrating the human spirit. In the end, T.J. is here to help.

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