Drama, not rated, 120 minutes, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
The house is a Victorian gingerbread fantasy, tall and narrow, with a rickety elegance and the aura of another time and perhaps another reality. We learn that it’s the ancestral San Francisco home of Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails, who also gets story credit), a displaced young man whose grandfather, he tells us, built it — not in the mid-19th century, as tour guides would have you believe, but in 1946. Jimmie grew up there, but the Fails family lost it and is now scattered to the winds: His father lives in an SRO hotel, his mother and aunt have left the city. White folks now own the house and get cantankerous when Jimmie comes by to do a little loving maintenance on the old place.
Jimmie crashes with best pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and his blind grandfather (a lovely Danny Glover), but he dreams of reclaiming his family birthright. And when the people living there suddenly move out and leave it empty, he and Mont move in.
The movie is about yearning, about wanting something so badly that it takes on a reality of its own. It’s also about friendship and about the transition of a city rapidly losing its middle class, one that is in danger of losing its fabled heart. Jimmie and Mont are sweet souls who don’t really fit in anywhere, not with the street toughs who hang out on Mont’s block and function as a kind of ad hoc Greek chorus, not with the upscale developers and rapacious realtors, not with the deteriorating state of the poorer neighborhoods. Mont is an aspiring playwright and a talented artist who carries a little red sketchbook with him everywhere and records what he sees, partly in order to make sense of it. Jimmy has just one dream: the reclamation of his house, his history, and his self-esteem.
Another theme is the gentling power of civility. Jimmie and Mont invite one of the street toughs, Kofi ( Jamal Trulove), up to the house, and as he relaxes into the genteel surroundings and they pass around a joint, the chip on his shoulder melts like ice in a sauna (which they’re in).
It’s a remarkable second feature for director Joe Talbot (American Paradise), a childhood friend of Fails. There are a few awkward moments and a few self-consciously stylized passages that may feel like gestures toward one director or another, but by and large, it all works. The deeply satisfying performances by Fails and Majors keep the story finely tuned, and that wonderful house looms up to represent an idea worth saving.