“Tuscaloosa” is a sneakily ambitious first film that sometimes hits its mark.
Based on W. Glasgow Phillips’ 1994 novel, it follows aimless, back-from-college Billy (Devon Bostick), who’s wasting his days working at the Alabama mental institution run by his old-guard father (Tate Donovan). It’s 1972, and racial tensions are very high. While Billy likes to think that Nigel (newcomer Marchánt Davis) is his best friend — their mothers died together under hazy circumstances — the young black man thinks otherwise. And much to his father’s dismay, Billy falls for one of the “lunatics” — Virginia (Natalia Dyer of “Stranger Things”), who insists she’s “not crazy.”
Visually, “Tuscaloosa” is richly textured — perhaps more than one might expect from a low-key debut feature set among the still-smoldering embers of Jim Crow. It’s adapted and directed by music video veteran Philip Harder, who has worked with Prince, Liz Phair and Foo Fighters. However, there are emotional connections and through lines missed. When the revelations come, they don’t land with the appropriate force. There’s little dread generated despite the extreme nature of events.
The film delivers on the romance between the Jay Baruchel-like Bostick and the charming Dyer, though the rules — she is committed to a mental institution, after all — come and go, like the stakes. The storytelling lurches at times. Switching back and forth from Billy’s rebelliousness to Nigel’s radicalization feels disjointed. “Tuscaloosa” isn’t about just the romance or the friendship; it’s also about several still-current social issues. The adaptation draws comparisons to today’s political climate with admirable lightness. But perhaps it’s just that lightness that keeps the well-meaning film from hitting harder.
Running time: 1 hours, 41 minutes
Playing: Starts March 13, Lumiere Music Hall; also on VOD