Detailing four interconnected stories revolving around love, drugs, poverty and modern ennui, Explicit Ills unfolds chiefly amidst a bunch of rundown tenements in a boarded-up, bombed-out area of Philadelphia. So drab and depressing is its setting that it seems like the movie, the feature writing and directing debut of young actor Mark Webber, could be alternately titled American Shantytown. Lyrical, earnest and well photographed, Explicit Ills is ultimately more intriguing than good; its narrative is so meandering and its grip so loose that one loses interest a bit less than halfway through its 90-minute running time.
The intertwined stories? Seven-year-old asthmatic Babo (Francisco Burgos) lives with his mother (Rosario Dawson) in the badlands of North Philly. His slightly older teen neighbor Demetri (Martin Cepeda), who makes moves on a girl by approaching her and asking if she wants to kiss him tomorrow, methodically a more bookish persona in order to try get the girl. Michelle (Frankie Shaw), a well-off art student, falls into a drug induced love affair with her dealer Jacob (Lou Taylor Pucci, above). The marriage of Kaleef (Tariq Trotter, of The Roots) and Jill (Naomie Harris) suffers tension as they pursue their dreams of bringing "produce to the people," while their lanky teenage son Heslin (Ross Kim-McManus) improbably focuses on heading to Jamaica to compete in the World's Strongest Man competition. Around the periphery, meanwhile, floats would-be actor Rocco (There Will Be Blood's Paul Dano).
Webber draws upon his personal relationships to help round out the cast (several of the actors are past costars), and his obviously collaborative approach yields some quiet, sensitive work. What's most interesting about Explicit Ills is the manner in which individual scenes subtly undercut one's expectation about where they're headed. Also somewhat engagingly, Webber proves himself the rare first-time filmmaker who doesn't overwrite; he's much more interested in crafting mood (additional props to cinematographer Patrice Lucien Cochet's inquisitive camerawork, and Michael Hersey's art direction) than pushing forward a specific narrative agenda, either collectively or individually. In this regard, his movie variously recalls works like George Washington, Raising Victor Vargas and/or Jim McKay's underrated Our Song.
Unfortunately, Explicit Ills suffers in comparison to all of these films, and its putative multicultural macro lesson — in which disparate individuals stumble toward connection with one another as they try to circumvent the isolating influences of homogeny and drug use, and draw together as a community — is tied together awkwardly in the third act, and doesn't connect in a strong enough, emotionally resonant manner to really hold one's attention. Notwithstanding some wholly invested performances and, again, an impressively atypical artistic instinct for a filmmaker of Webber's age, Explicit Ills slots as more of an interesting misfire than a must-rent for one's Netflix list.
Presented in 2.35.1 widescreen, which preserves the original aspect ratio of its March theatrical exhibition, Explicit Ills comes to DVD in a regular plastic Amaray case. A clutch of deleted scenes were touted in the original home video announcement for the movie, but the disc’s only bonus features are the theatrical trailer and some text-screen information on social activism issues raised in the movie. The film is also available on Blu-ray in 2.35:1 widescreen in 1080p. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C- (Movie) D (Disc)