Combustible Celluloid
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With: Devon Bostick, Natalia Dyer, Marchant Davis, Tate Donovan, YG, Ella Rae Peck, Birgundi Baker, Bruce Bohne, Tony Papenfuss
Written by: Philip Harder, based on a novel by W. Glasgow Phillips
Directed by: Philip Harder
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 101
Date: 03/13/2020

Tuscaloosa (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Barbecue Loss

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on a 1994 novel by W. Glasgow Phillips, this drama tries to achieve a novel's depth and breadth, and while many facets feel inevitably short-changed, much of it is still powerfully engaging.

In Tuscaloosa, it's 1972 and college grad Billy (Devon Bostick, Okja) works taking care of the grounds at an Alabama mental asylum, where his father (Tate Donovan) is a psychiatrist. He occasionally visits his best friend Nigel (Marchant Davis), an African-American who runs a BBQ stand; they share a bond in that their mothers tried to run away together when they were younger, but died in a car crash.

At the asylum, Billy meets and falls for Virginia (Natalia Dyer, Stranger Things), who has been committed, but seems to be nothing more than a free spirit. As they spend more and more time together, Billy's father threateningly disapproves. Meanwhile, Nigel is becoming more and more angry and has begun to stage violent acts of protest against white establishment. Everything comes to a head the night Billy decides to run away with Virginia.

Music video maker Philip Harder makes his feature writing and directing debut with Tuscaloosa, and it's an ambitious attempt, not only in the tapestry of characters and history, but in the period setting and mood. (The song "O-o-h Child" by the Five Stairsteps has been used in many movies, but sounds just right here.) Bostick and Dyer are wonderful in their roles. Bostick is both kind and an outsider, moving to a slightly different rhythm than those around him.

Dyer captures a wonderful pluckiness, playing around with the line between what it means to be "sane" and "crazy." Davis, while effective as Nigel, gets short-changed. His character is almost exclusively seen during exchanges with Billy, and both his relationship with Billy and his transformation into a militant are frustratingly opaque.

Likewise, the flashbacks to the two young mothers, which should have tied so many things together, are both scant and repetitive. But the two main characters keep the movie flowing in a touching way as they navigate between the extremes of the world, and all the anger that goes with them, trying to make their own place.

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