Solid lead performances are little compensation for more feel-good “can’t we all just get along?” Oscar bait.
When Peter Farrelly’s Green Book came out last November, it felt like something had fallen out of a time machine. Not too far removed from its period detail and “eh, I’m walkin’ ‘ere” dialogue was its antiquated approach to race relations. They were oversimplified and borderline damaging, and despite how good its intentions may have been, stayed out of its depth. Looking back, its runaway success shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
As it so happens, easy stories are easier to tell, and if the last couple years have taught us anything, it’s that nothing whets the tongue quite like a redemption arc. This generally continues in The Best of Enemies. It may be to a slightly more achieved extent, but writer/director Robin Bissell’s debut feature still feels passé in how it takes a fascinating true story only to round itself down to something very normal.
That normalcy jumps off from the beginning, opening with civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) one blistering day as she and dozens of others try to overturn their town’s oppressive laws. The struggle seems to be par for the course, and the elected justices literally turn their back on those fighting for change. It also isn’t much help that the local Ku Klux Klan chapter seems to have an unseen foothold on the community, currently fighting tooth and claw against integrated schooling. This is Dunham, North Carolina, and it’s 1971.
And then an all-black school burns to a crisp in an electrical fire, leading the town to form a community meeting. That means two weeks of meetings before the board votes for or against integration, and while Ann swiftly takes up position on the board, guess who else is there? KKK leader C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), and while they lie at opposite ethical ends, they come to share a begrudging respect. It’s a radically unorthodox relationship, and the movie frames itself not just as their story. It’s not just Ann’s; it’s not just Ellis’s.
Instead of three-dimensional characters, The Best of Enemies gives us two wax figures in a cardboard town, and they’re all at the mercy of Bissel as a writer/director.
Well, that’s the case in theory. The Best of Enemies is curiously uninterested in Ann, at least in comparison to Ellis. All we get in regards to Ann’s background comes from the typically wonderful Henson. It’s all about Ellis and his redemption. He gets a doting wife in the form of Mary (Anne Heche) who, when the script sees fit, pops up as a voice of reason. He also has familial padding in sons Timmy (Brody Rose) and Kenneth (Carson Holmes), both of whom the movie quickly abandons them in favor of Ellis’s other son, Larry (Kevin Iannucci).
Why? Because Larry can easier serve the central redemption arc, showing that hey, even if Ellis is racist, at least he cares for his mentally handicapped child! Bissell’s film is full of characters that disappear once they do their part to help redeem Ellis. Ann, meanwhile, feels all too detached from the central conflict, making her efforts—and her unlikely relationship with Ellis—frustratingly detached. This applies for other characters, too, as not enough dialogue has the crackle needed to make these 133 minutes stick.
Instead of three-dimensional characters, The Best of Enemies gives us two wax figures in a cardboard town, and they’re all at the mercy of Bissel as a writer/director. If someone gets a curiously high amount of reaction shots, they’re probably going to get what they want. If someone’s super sweaty, they’re probably going to do something evil. And if someone looks like they just took a shower? Well, they’re probably okay, and there’s nothing to worry about.
Instead it’s up to the actors to liven up the film, and they do about as much as they can. Henson is as strong as always, doing as much with her eyes as the rest of the cast does with their entire bodies. She also gets to share some nice scenes with Heche, who brings a realism and sympathy to her underwritten wife role. There’s also a solid group of supporting players from Babou Ceesay to John Gallagher Jr., who do something only solid actors can: make their surroundings feel more developed they actually are.
Bissell also shows himself to have a decent relationship to the camera at points, and even if he isn’t a commanding director, most of his choices veer towards competency. But this is a double-edged sword overall, and the blade never feels as sharp as it ought to. There are too many tired arcs, too little cohesion between characters, and more than a few foibles that disquiet as often as they entertain. The Best of Enemies aims for well rounded, but it mostly feels lopsided.