In a leaner year for lead actors, Kevin Costner would be more of an Oscar contender for his terrific turn as a beleaguered grandfather in Mike Binder's nervy race-relations dramedy "Black or White." Whether Costner makes the awards cut or not, it's a pleasure to watch the veteran actor so deftly traverse the vanity-free demands of such a flawed, authentic, toughly sympathetic character.
Writer-director Binder, who previously worked with Costner in the fine 2005 film "The Upside of Anger," has crafted an all-too timely tale inspired by an episode from his own family history. True, Binder's well-intended approach to the movie's socio-racial schematics may prove divisive; for all its modern smarts, there's a sporadic "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" vibe at play that can feel dated. More important, however, the filmmaker and his on-screen proxies boldly go places our national discourse desperately needs to go, yet rarely does.
Costner plays Elliot, an affluent, Scotch-guzzling Los Angeles lawyer whose wife, Carol (Jennifer Ehle), is killed in a car accident. Her death leaves him alone with their 7-year-old biracial granddaughter, Eloise (a wonderful Jillian Estell), whom they have been raising since her mother — Elliot and Carol's daughter — died at 17 in childbirth.
Enter Eloise's paternal grandmother, Rowena, aka Grandma Wee Wee (Octavia Spencer, a kick), an irrepressible, entrepreneurial force of nature who decides, now that the capable Carol is gone, to seek custody of Eloise and bring the child to live with her extended family in Compton. With Rowena's slick lawyer brother, Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), leading the charge, an ugly, daunting, twisty court battle ensues.
Meanwhile, Eloise's absentee father, Reggie (Andre Holland), a rudderless drug addict with a rap sheet, returns to L.A. purportedly cleaned up and hoping to reconnect with Eloise. But Elliot's disdain for Reggie, the man he feels ruined his late daughter's life, will fuel much of the film's conflict in ways that prove more physically and emotionally painful — and brutally honest — than Elliot's tussling with the equitable Rowena.
Binder balances the humor and pathos here for crowd-pleasing moments: amusing exchanges between the voluble Rowena and a slow-burn judge (a spot-on Paula Newsome), the endearing wonkiness of Eloise's African-immigrant math tutor (Mpho Koaho) and lovely interactions between the precious Eloise and an at-sea Elliot. (Whenever this gruff grandpa tenderly calls her "puppy," it's lump-in-throat time.)
Binder works to address racial issues head on without shying away from the proverbial elephants in the room. An example: Just when one can't help think the crack-smoking, deadbeat Reggie is a dreadful cliché, Jeremiah flat-out dubs his nephew a "perfect stereotype." It's a disarming, largely effective strategy.
At the same time, it can feel as if Binder is constantly attempting to square matters to justify his characters' actions, motivations and personas. Maybe it's a way to satisfy (pacify?) the broadest swath of viewers — and maybe it's simply unavoidable. But it proves a tricky juggling act whose seams are more visible than not.
Still, when Binder's script is at its best, such as when Elliot's unfortunate use of the N-word leads him to deliver a frank and climactic courtroom speech, we're grateful for the chances "Black or White" takes and for the all-important grays it so often brings to light.
'Black or White'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, fighting (on appeal)
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: iPic, Westwood