THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Antwone Fisher - the directorial debut of Denzel Washington - is based on a true story. Derek Luke stars as the title character, a Navy recruit with an anger management problem. He is the kind of kid who looks for reasons to pick a fight; he is mad at the world and will happily take his grudge out on whomever is nearby. His actions land him in the office of Jerome Davenport (played by Washington), a naval psychiatrist whose job is to meet with Fisher three times, then make a recommendation to Navy brass.

At first, Fisher doesn't want therapy, but eventually he opens up, even requesting more sessions. During his time with Davenport, he begins relating stories about his unhappy childhood which was mostly spent in foster care. He lived with a family that subjected him to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Along with his foster brothers, he was often tied to a pole in the basement and beaten with a wet rag. Despite the fact that the family was African-American, there was demeaning racism to put up with as well. As he puts it, "you could tell which of the children she was talking to just by the way she said 'nigger'." His foster mother was so cruel, so uncompassionate, that young Antwone started to believe he was worthless.

A naval psychiatrist (Denzel Washington) helps an angry young recruit (Derek Luke) in Antwone Fisher
Davenport asks about Antwone's natural family. His father was killed by a girlfriend; his mother was sent to prison and never came back for him when she was released. Davenport suggests that Antwone needs to find his living relatives and reconnect with them - to seek them out as a way of gaining answers that might help heal his considerable wounds. At first, he isn't interested, or perhaps he is too afraid. A Thanksgiving dinner at the psychiatrist's house convinces him that a family might be a good thing to have. With the help of girlfriend Cheryl (Joy Bryant), Antwone locates some relatives in Ohio.

This leads to one of the most powerful and emotional scenes of the year. Antwone at long last is reunited with the mother who abandoned him. He avoids confronting her, instead delivering a heartfelt monologue about himself and the things he has accomplished in life. "I'm a good man," he tells her at the end. Viola Davis plays Eva, his mother; she has only about two lines, yet she conveys more pain and confusion with just her eyes than some actors do with their whole bodies and pages of dialogue.

Antwone Fisher opens with a dream in which the central character, as a young boy, is surrounded by a large family and a table full of food. This is his ideal in life - to be engulfed by love and warmth. That image is recalled during the Thanksgiving scene with Davenport, and again at the end when Antwone gets to know his relatives. I found myself getting choked up by the ending, which evokes the joy of knowing that a lot of people love and care about you.

Washington has directed the film with great sensitivity and compassion for the character. Early scenes made it appear like this might be just a retread of Good Will Hunting, but the director has other ideas in mind. This is a story that celebrates family - the bonding, caring, and togetherness that come through blood relation. That Antwone can be so easily integrated into a family (where no one knows him) is inspirational. I love the way this story captures the unconditional acceptance that strong families have.

If there's a problem with the movie, it's the presence of a few structural problems in the screenplay, written by Fisher himself. For example, there is a subplot about Davenport's increasingly distant relationship with his wife. For a time, it appears that she is going to be an important character, yet she disappears halfway through the film. Then, in literally the last two minutes of the movie, Davenport explains why they were distant and how things worked out. It's a false note, especially as it comes right after the one-two punch of Fisher's reunion with his mother and then his extended family. The development of the relationship between Antwone and Cheryl is awkward as well, and a flashback involving a childhood friend's descent into crime comes as predictably as it does quickly.

I suppose that it would be hard writing about your own life, as there would be so much you'd want to tell. Fisher deserves credit for filling his screenplay with heart; the fact that it is clearly so passionate compensates for some of its technical flaws. Watching Antwone Fisher is an affecting experience. The scenes of child abuse are harrowing, Antwone's quest for the truth is compelling, and the discovery of his natural family is ultimately moving.

Denzel Washington has proven himself a solid director. He gets the tone just right, helping us to relate to this young man's struggle. And Derek Luke gives a superb breakout performance in the title role, providng Antwone with a mixture of intelligence and vulnerability. It's important to like this guy in order for the movie to work. Although more cynical audience members will call Antwone Fisher sappy, I loved the fact that this film is about something so human. Antwone is a good man, deep down inside. More than that, he's a young man who thought he had nothing and touchingly discovers that he has everything.

( out of four)

Antwone Fisher is rated PG-13 for violence, language and mature thematic material involving abuse. The running time is 2 hours.

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