By Scott Weinberg (Original publication date: 3/13/08 -- SXSW Film Festival)
When a movie shows up and takes a clear political stance, I find it's easier to judge its successes and / or shortcomings than when a flick dips a toe into the pool of social commentary and just waggles it around for a few minutes -- which probably explains why I both enjoyed and respected Mark Webber's Explicit Ills, an Altman-esque indie drama that has something to say about poverty, health care, and the importance of basic human kindness.
Brief, honest, and admirably to-the-point, Explicit Ills follows a group of seemingly unrelated South Philadelphia folks who try to lead normal, happy, anonymous lives -- but their station on the lower rung of the income scale means that even the most basic requirements remain frustratingly out-of-reach. (In one key scene, an excellent Rosario Dawson is denied asthma medicine for her sick little boy -- because she cannot afford the $55 price tag.) Alternate plot threads involve a pair of young druggies in love, a mega-clean couple who aim to open a health food store, and a cocky adolescent who (slowly) learns how to treat a lady.
The film is packed with excellently un-flashy performances. Much of the best stuff comes from relatively unknown actors, but indie fans will certainly appreciate the contributions of Rosario Dawson, Paul Dano, Naomie Harris, and Lou Taylor Pucci. Frankly, there's not a weak link among the entire (large) cast, although I certainly look forward to new stuff from Frankie Shaw, Tariq Trotter, and lovable little Francisco Burgos (who shines in this movie like a rose in a lumber yard).
That's not a knock on the film, but Webber frames inner-city Philadelphia in starkly honest fashion. He doesn't exactly linger on the city's poverty-level ugliness, but he sure doesn't shy away from my hometown's more unflattering areas. But what I most appreciate is Webber's intent: These folks sure don't live in anything resembling an affluent neighborhood, but there's still an admirable amount of decency and humanity huddling behind the paint-chipped walls. Too bad these people can't "afford" to keep their children healthy.
Filmmaker Mark Webber (a fine character actor making his debut here as writer / director) does a very astute job of creating five or six extremely different "demographic" groups, and then he slowly draws his disparate stories together to make a very simple point: Everyone deserves basic human rights like health care and a "livable" income ... but here in the wealthiest country on Earth, it's pretty sickening how many people go without the basics. If Webber's message comes off a bit too unsubtly (and if the lead kid is just two degrees too flawlessly angelic), those minor gripes can be forgiven; this is a film that wants to speak out (loudly and clearly) about some of our nation's most obvious maladies, and it does so in an impressively honest, angry, and semi-hopeful fashion.