Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
In “Tuscaloosa,” a forbidden love story unfolds against the backdrop of racial tensions in early 1970s Alabama. The film marks the debut of prolific music video director Philip Harder, who skillfully adapts W. Glasgow Phillips’s 1994 novel of the same name. And Harder establishes the look and feel of the time and the place very well while benefitting hugely from a talented cast with two popular, emerging young stars in the lead.
The story has Billy (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s” Devon Bostick) loafing about after graduating from college. He’s twenty-two, but he still lives the life of a college student, often puffing away on a marijuana cigarette and watching the grass grow around him. His father, Doctor Mitchell (Tate Donovan), tolerates Billy’s time off following graduation but has been arranging for an interview at the local newspaper so that Billy can get “respectable.”
Doctor Mitchell is something of a big deal in the town, where he operates a large mental institution. He and Billy live in a large home on the institution’s grounds. Billy’s mother died some years before, and memories of her scandalous passing torment Billy.
Billy’s mother ran off with an African-American woman, and the two died under mysterious circumstances. Billy’s best friend is Nigel (Marchánt Davis), the son of the woman who died with Billy’s mother. Both boys attended college, and now Nigel runs a barbecue joint reminiscent of an early version of Tuscaloosa’s famous Dreamland.
But as much as Billy adores Nigel, there is tension between them. Nigel’s interest in racial politics has him leaning toward radical factions in preparation for a future conflict with the town’s white leadership. The pot is boiling, and all Billy wants to do is get high.
Meanwhile, Billy notices an alluring, spritely girl named Virginia (“Stranger Things’” Natalia Dyer). She’s a patient in his father’s facility. But unlike a typical inmate, Virginia is lucid and alive. Billy is immediately enchanted. And as time passes, the two young people are drawn together. It’s a forbidden romance that will inevitably place Billy at a crossroads.
“Tuscaloosa” is a handsomely made film. Harder, whose background includes camera work on feature films, works with cinematographer Theo Stanley to craft deeply textured, filmic images reflective of the time period. And while much of the movie was shot in Minnesota, Tuscaloosa is represented by a city street shot of the Bama Theater circa 1970s.
There are, also, shots Tuscaloosa’s well-known train bridge that acts as background for scenes involving Billy and Virginia’s courtship. The magic of today’s filmmaking enables recreation of period settings even without shooting on location, and Harder and his team do a remarkable job within budgetary restraints.
But what works best here is the combination of complex story-telling with impressive performances. Bostick, who played the crazy older brother in the “Wimpy Kid” franchise, is excellent as he embodies a slacker, pushed to care about something for the first time in his life. But Dyer is the standout as Virginia.
Virginia is a complicated character to play. While she’s damaged in some way, Dyer is required to play her not as a mentally ill person but as someone who might be sane. Virginia may be a victim of the time and society’s standards. And it is also possible that she has a deeply troubling mental condition. Dyer keeps us guessing. Her work here is in stark contrast with what she’s shown us as the heroic and together Nancy Wheeler on Netflix’s popular “Stranger Things” series. I think we will be seeing more of her in the future as this actress gets opportunities to take on new and exciting roles.
Ultimately, “Tuscaloosa” is a movie about a young man who is transformed and grows up. His eyes are forced open by the cruelty of the time and place. It’s also a love story, but like the racial politics, the romantic elements are merely the conduit for personal maturity. And as the film concludes, Billy’s father gives him a dire warning that the power of love can be a dangerous thing.
“Tuscaloosa,” a movie that was to mount a limited theatrical run, is now available for rental online.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com