Homelessness, race, mental illness, government responsibility and social advocacy are just a few things that director and writer Emilio Estevez is trying to address in his newest film, The Public. Estevez stars in the film alongside an ensemble cast that includes Michael K. Williams, Christian Slater, Alec Baldwin, Taylor Schilling, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Jacob Vargas and Che “Rhymefest” Smith. During the coldest winter in Cincinnati, The Public explores what happens when the homeless occupy a library for shelter. Spoilers after the trailer.
Ambitious and Thoughtful
The Public is an ambitious and thoughtful film and Estevez does his best to address a lot of social issues. Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez) works at a library in downtown Cincinnati, and on the coldest day of the year, a group of homeless men, led by Jackson (Michael K. Williams), attempt to occupy the library for shelter. Jackson and the other homeless do not want to cause any harm or trouble – they just want to stay somewhere warm – but the city’s government would rather have them freeze on the streets. The majority of the homeless men are people of color, and combine that with prosecutor Josh Davis (Christian Slater) running for re-election and Detective Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) and it creates a hostile environment where tensions are high. The reality of the situation is that governments attempt to criminalize the homeless, yet just like in the film, most of the homeless are veterans that are forgotten about upon their return home.
Not everyone had as much thought in their characters. The women in this film were either written poorly or complete dunces. Angela (Taylor Schilling) is just in the film to serve as Stuart Goodson’s love interest. Reporter Rebecca Parks (Gabrielle Union) is an egotistical reporter who cares about views more than the truth of a story. Her character is used as a way to criticize media portrayals as a whole. The woman who is the most annoying character in the film is Myra (Jena Malone), Stuart Goodson’s Woke-Hipster-Social-Justice-Warrior co-worker, but the problem is that she’s only about those causes online. The film opens up with her acting as if she’s about the struggle and the cause, but when things go down and the books are returned late, she’s the first person that wants to leave the library. Myra is all bark and no bite yet throughout the film, she continues to bark the loudest.
From a technical standpoint, the directing isn’t anything to go home about, the film is shot competently but the editing is what gives the film a sense of style. The ensemble cast helped elevate the script with their performances. There are moments that are cheesy and feel like they came out of the 1990s but the actors and actresses help ease the cheese. The comedic bits do happen at the right time to ease some of the drama. The scoring for The Public was filled with bops that would make anyone get kicked out of a library. Rapper and actor Che “Rhymefest” Smith provided some of his tunes and instrumentals to serve as the score and that helped give the film an edge sonically.
After watching this film, the only question there was to ask was, if Emilio Estevez had ever heard of the word subtle because this film left all its subtleness outside on the cold streets of Cincinnati. First, our protagonist is named Stuart Goodson – good son – which sure whatever, but one of the antagonists is named Bill Ramstead – bet you can’t guess which character wants to ram their way into the library – and those names are hard to take seriously in a movie that tries to tackle a number of serious tactics. Estevez may have chosen to go this route to add to the melodrama of the film but he didn’t have to. The names aren’t the only things that aren’t subtle, there are a lot of on the nose moments scattered throughout the film that come off as preachy. The thing that counteracts this is that the movie is set in a library and in an intellectual sense, libraries would be – second to a church – the place you expect people to come off as know-it-alls and preachy.
The film also couldn’t escape the White Savior cinematic trope by the end of the film. By the end of the film, we find out that Goodson was once homeless which also adds to the movie being too on the nose. As stated earlier in this review the idea to occupy the library was Jackson’s and the other homeless men but by the end of the film, somehow, the hero of the movie is Goodson. Estevez wrote the film, so it is understandable that he would make his character the hero of the film, but he should’ve taken a different route to do so.
Original ideas in film are hard to come by these days, but The Public does its best when trying to cover the relationship between the homeless and public libraries – a topic that is rarely discussed in cinema. Emilio Estevez definitely had an ambitious idea when he was creating this film but the execution does leave more to be desired. There are powerful scenes in this movie and with a little more subtleness and sharper writing The Public could’ve been one of the best pictures of the year. However, this film does serve its purpose and if you’re someone who is into social advocacy then I would recommend this one for you. Like a book at a public library, The Public is just waiting to be checked out.
[All Mames Wey]
The Public was released in theaters April 5, 2019.