Thursday, October 2, 2014

Milwaukee Film Fest 2014: Things Never Said

Much like the woman who is the subject of the film about to be discussed, “Things Never Said” had a few tough tasks. One, it had to get people to take spoken-word poetry as seriously as its characters do, when it's an art form that's easy to parody. Two, it had to get us to be sympathetic with a woman who cheats on her husband. This is never easy to accomplish without sinking into overwrought melodrama, but women, especially black women, really get the short end of the stick in this regard. (Tyler Perry, please stay in drag if it'll keep you from making disgusting, regressive crap like “Temptation: Confessions Of A Marriage Counselor.” And the upcoming “Addicted” doesn't look much better.)

But “Things Never Said” not only manages to keep the melodrama at bay, it actually makes the characters in front of the lens feel as real as they come, even if the world they inhabit is foreign to many of us. But thanks to writer-director Charles Murray's beautiful script, the characters are as compelling as the poems they compose and recite.

Then again, perfect casting never hurts, and here we have the intensely charismatic Shanola Hampton, who plays Kalindra Stepney, an aspiring LA poet who is unhappily married to a man even more frustrated than she is, still mourning the athletic dreams that were destroyed by an injury. Her burgeoning talent attracts his ire and jealousy, as well as a new admirer named Curtis (Omari Hardwick), himself an aspiring poet with plenty of past behind him. They strike up a tentative romance, and she must decide to stay where everyone (including her own mother) expects her to be, or take a chance on a new path.

Audiences have seen this happen before and where it leads, but rarely in such style. We generally disagree with the actions of the people that populate “Things Never Said,” but that rarely stops us from empathizing with them, even in the case of Kalindra's abusive husband Ronnie. Of course, in a story like this, we get a new romance so the sensitive lover can provide a welcome contrast to the abuse the woman is subjected to. Said lover usually risks being too good to be true, but the fact that this one is named Curtis Jackson (the birth name of 50 Cent) actually provides some welcome comic relief. And he's another charismatic one with the acting chops (and shirtless scenes) to pull it off.

But it keeps other staples of the genre at bay enough to where we don't know if they're going to be fulfilled or not. (Will there be an epic confrontation between the old and the new lover? Will certain characters ever come around? I honestly didn't know.) Ronnie's abuse feels more frightening for it being depicted so realistically, and even minor characters such as Kalindra's mother serve their purpose, and explain how a woman could see putting up with years of relationship toxicity as strength. What results is stories we may have seen, but people who aren't often portrayed, especially with this much skill. Here's hoping we see more of it.

Grade: B+

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