Imagine a hybrid of the most compelling aspects of two HBO programs the therapy sessions of the mob drama "The Sopranos" and the raw simplicity of the prison series "Oz" and you have "The Visit."
The film is an impressive debut from writer-director-producer Jordan Walker-Pearlman, adapted from a play by Kosmond Russell that's based on a true story. His camerawork and interiors are spare a play on film, almost the perfect backdrop for the muted yet powerful performances from a strong ensemble cast.
Hill Harper stars as Alex Waters, who is serving 25 years in a California prison for rape. But at age 32, he is dying of AIDS, and has less than a year to live.
The title comes not from one visit, but from a series that Alex receives: from his successful older brother Tony (Obba Babatunde), who is married with two children; from his parents (Billy Dee Williams and Marla Gibbs), who haven't seen him in five years; and from his childhood friend Felicia (Rae Dawn Chong), a victim of incest and a recovering crack addict who wants to help him heal, too.
Each visit changes Alex a little bit, opens him up. In between, he makes his own visits to Dr. Coles (Phylicia Rashad), the prison psychiatrist who's analyzing him before making a recommendation to the parole board about his release.
And then there is his dream life, a melancholy version of Ally McBeal's wacky, surreal visions. Alex imagines himself happy, healthy. He slow dances with his mother, jokes with his brother, holds Felicia tenderly until reality returns.
The imagery is compelling, but even more so is how real all these characters feel they talk to each other like real people talk.
The words gush from Felicia when she explains why she's come to see Alex after so many years, a rush to make up for lost time.
They spew in awkward starts and stops from his parents as they try to reconnect with their younger son, to understand what went wrong.
They resonate softly as Alex talks with Dr. Coles about dying of AIDS behind bars. The disease has forced him to confront his mortality and make amends with the people he's alienated.
Walker-Pearlman unfortunately teeters toward melodrama at the film's end. But everything he shows us until then is so well done, that's forgivable.
He gets an enormous amount of help from a mostly veteran cast, especially Chong, who practically plays two separate characters. Her Felicia is painful to watch in flashbacks to her drug days, and luminous in recovery.
And Harper IS a leading man it's as simple as that. His face shows such pain and regret, such fleeting wonder and happiness, and he makes the range seem effortless.
After a series of supporting roles in forgettable movies like "The Skulls" and "In Too Deep" and the defunct CBS hospital drama "City of Angels," here he gets a chance to shine. This film should change his career, and deservedly so.
"The Visit," the first feature release from Urbanworld Films, is rated R for language and some drug content. Running time: 107 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times