brian banks trailer

Some true stories can be both entirely remarkable, and still not appropriate dramatically for the current moment. Take, for instance, the story of Brian Banks. When he was 16, Brian was a high-school football star accused of rape by a female classmate. Even with shaky evidence, Brian was sentenced to six years in prison despite maintaining his innocence. Years later, Brian managed to convince enough people within the California legal system that he didn’t commit this crime that his entire conviction and sex-offender status were overturned. This makes up the core story of Brian Banks, a fictionalized version of his journey. As a true story, it’s remarkable. But the translation from truth to cinema leaves something wanting.

When Brian Banks works, which is only sporadically, it’s thanks almost entirely to Aldis Hodge, playing the title character. Hodge has appeared in plenty of films and TV over the last 15 years (cult-TV fans may remember him from an early arc on Friday Night Lights), but his emotional and complex performance as Brian helps sell even the mawkiest sentiments in the screenplay. Hodge makes Brian’s fight for his freedom genuinely compelling in ways that the film surrounding him is rarely able to achieve. But even he can’t eliminate the optics of watching a film in 2019 in which a man argues that a woman has made a false sexual-assault accusation against him. Nor can he eliminate the optics of watching said film, in which the man is not only telling the truth, but the woman is painted as being selfish, greedy and, indeed, a liar. 

Yet perhaps the oddest part of Brian Banks isn’t its existence within a longer, overdue moment in which men who are accused of committing sexual assault receive a reckoning due to an avalanche of proof. It’s the “Directed by” credit at the end. This film marks the return to the big screen for director Tom Shadyac, who you may recall from Liar Liar, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and Bruce Almighty. The story of Brian Banks isn’t the natural return for Shadyac, who removed himself from the industry for over a decade. Though he and writer Doug Atchison seem to briefly grapple with the reality of a world in which most men accused of sexual assault actually are committing that assault, within this film’s confines, most men are fairly honorable. (And if you’re hoping for any wacky humor here, look elsewhere.)

Leaving aside the timing of this story, Brian Banks rarely bursts outside of the lines of the traditional legal drama. Brian spends a good chunk of the film trying to convince the leader (Greg Kinnear) of a statewide project to exonerate falsely accused prisoners to take on his case. It’s through Brian’s interactions with this lawyer that we learn, if nothing else, how massively broken the California legal system appears to be. (As Kinnear’s character glibly says, California’s laws are draconian enough to make Alabama seem liberal.) There’s not a whole lot to make this entertaining, of course, especially since the film opens in medias res as Brian walks through a park and watches kids play football. (As part of his parole, Brian has to wear an ankle bracelet and stay far away from schools or parks because of his sex-offender status, so we know he’s going to win his freedom back.)

Aside from Hodge, the only truly unexpected or impressive performance comes from someone who’s not credited in the picture but has a connection to Shadyac’s work: Morgan Freeman. (If you were hoping it was Jim Carrey, sorry.) Freeman appears in a few brief flashbacks as a figure of hope and guidance when Brian needs it most, in his first months in prison. Watching Freeman in Brian Banks, it’s awfully hard not to wonder if Shadyac is intentionally referencing one of the legendary actor’s best performances, in The Shawshank Redemption. (You know, another inspirational drama about a man who is falsely accused of a crime against a woman, where he goes to prison, then befriends and is given moral guidance by…Morgan Freeman.) His few scenes offer the right amount of predictable but welcome gravitas that most of the film lacks. Kinnear does his best with the tenacious lawyer character, but it feels paint-by-numbers.

It’s kind of amazing that a movie like Brian Banks gets made today. Yes, the real man was – from all accounts and evidence – clearly innocent, and should never have been sent to prison. And his journey from prison to the NFL (the latter of which is barely touched upon in the epilogue) is the kind of thing that guarantees he’ll be a staple of the motivational-speaker circuit for years to come. It is, however, challenging to watch a movie chiding us for presuming that women who come forth with rape accusations should be doubted. Aldis Hodge’s performance anchors this film, and lends it emotion in some key moments. But Brian Banks the film cannot hope to compare to the story of Brian Banks, the person.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.