Liberty Heights


Not quite yet. Baltimore is ready for integrated schools, but not multi-racial relationships (Foster and Johnson).
dir-scr Barry Levinson
with Adrien Brody, Ben Foster, Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, Orlando Jones, Rebekah Johnson, David Krumholtz, Richard Kline, Evan Neuman, Justin Chambers, Carolyn Murphy, Gerry Rosenthal
Warners 99/US 5 out of 5 stars
Review by Rich Cline
This is the fourth in Levinson's Baltimore series (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon), and Liberty Heights easily stands along those as a remarkable work of art--a moving personal story liberally seasoned with humour and meaning. There isn't a bad performance in the film, and Levinson's filmmaking talent is on peak form, which is saying a lot.

It's 1954 and the central characters are two Jewish brothers facing racial integration in unusual ways. Ben (Foster) is in high school, and finds himself attracted to the first black student in his class (Johnson), but romance is forbidden on all sides. Van (Brody) is in college, suddenly thrust into the posh Gentile set, and falling for an equally unattainable girl (Murphy). Meanwhile, they never ask about their dad Nate's (Mantegna) work ... because runs a sleazy burlesque theatre, with a numbers racket on the side. And he's about to have a serious challenge from a black drug dealer (Jones).

With a gentle streak of wit and an intelligent approach to the issues, this is one of those very rare films that is absolutely immaculate in its scripting, directing, acting and editing. The only complaint is that the boys' mother/Nate's wife is never fleshed out significantly (but is still beautifully played by Newirth). Levinson approaches the themes with a raw-yet-warm honesty--racial issues are authentically touched upon in all their nuance and impact, romance is both exciting and confusing, business is a constant struggle to out-think the other guy, disappointment threatens on every front. It's all superbly complex, with no easy answers and no true villains ... and yet it's also engaging, entertaining and satisfying on several levels. And one more thing: This is an autobiographical coming-of-age story that actually avoids sentiment and nostalgia! The kind of film you long for after a summer of mindless bombast.

[15--adult themes and situations] 4.Aug.00
US release 19.Nov.99; UK release 9.Sep.00

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2000 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall