Aldis Hodge is a terrific young actor, straight out of “Straight Outta Compton,” “Hidden Figures,” the WGN America series “Underground” and, soon, the remake of “The Invisible Man.” He’s especially effective at a slow boil, letting a character’s inner life and torments bubble up vividly but naturally.
“Brian Banks” is somewhat less terrific — a conventionally made docudrama elevated by its performers, including Greg Kinnear, Melanie Liburd and Sherri Shepherd. But the story pulls you along, traveling a long, winding path from wrongful conviction to exoneration.
In 2002, 16-year-old Brian Banks, a student and football star at Long Beach (Calif.) Polytechnic High School, was charged with rape and kidnapping. He took a plea deal for nearly six years in prison, a five-year probation and the requirement that he register as a sex offender. His accuser, a fellow student, won a $1.5 million settlement from the Long Beach school district.
Years later the woman got in touch with Banks on Facebook. Under video surveillance, in a face-to-face meeting, she recanted her testimony. But she wasn’t told she was being videotaped: a textbook example of inadmissible evidence. Banks’ longtime ally, Justin Brooks of the California Innocence Project (played by Kinnear), believed his client’s story. “Brian Banks” streamlines the full, fraught account into an inspirational message picture.
The writer, Doug Atchison (“Akeelah and the Bee”), and the director, Tom Shadyac (“Patch Adams,” “Bruce Almighty”), go a fair distance in humanizing various sides of a case resting on the dishonesty of the accuser. It’s a dicey time to revisit such a case, dealing as we are with fallout from so many clouds hanging over the #MeToo era. “Brian Banks” rightly leans into any opportunity to complicate the lives of these people, most effectively in scenes between Hodge and Liburd as Banks’ fellow gym rat and love interest.
Kinnear can make the flattest of boilerplate dialogue — “The system is broken; it just doesn’t care” — sound like someone just thinking out loud. As Banks’ prison mentor and spiritual turnaround wizard, Morgan Freeman brings the gravitas, while Shepherd (as Banks’ devoted mother) brings the gravitas plus the fervent Christian overlay ever-present in the movie.
“Brian Banks” proceeds non-chronologically, toggling between high school years and Banks’ post-prison life. This helps keep the audience on its toes. But it’s the actors who complicate things most fruitfully.
★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for thematic content and language.