In the age of #MeToo and “Believe All Women,” this may seem like an exceptionally unfortunate time to release a movie about a high school football player falsely accused of rape.
But “Brian Banks” is based on a true story, and sticks to the complicated facts of the case, in which Banks, at the time a 16-year-old All American football player, was wrongly sent to prison for six years. Above all, Aldis Hodge’s star-making turn as Banks makes us care about his plight from start to finish.
The screenplay by Doug Atchison, his first film since writing and directing the wonderful “Akeelah and the Bee” a decade ago, humanizes all sides of this drama, and uses flashbacks effectively to tell Banks’ story. When we first meet Banks, he is a 26-year-old man on parole, living with his mother, trying to rebuild his football career at a local community college.
But a change in California law requires him to wear an ankle monitoring bracelet and, as a registered sex offender, stay clear of schools and parks. This effectively ends his chances of a football comeback and makes it almost impossible to find a job.
In flashbacks, we see Banks as a 16-year-old teenager who engaged in a makeout session with a fellow student (Xosha Roquemore) in a deserted school hallway. He abandons her, fearful of getting caught, and in her embarrassment she concocts the story that he forced her into the hallway and raped her.
The authorities don’t investigate the inconsistencies in her story, and a frightened Banks is coerced by his attorney into taking a terrible plea deal that results in a prison sentence. In prison, Banks meets a prison counselor (played in three small, potent scenes by Morgan Freeman) who helps him develop the inner strength he needs to survive. “Given the right perspective, prison can set you free,” the counselor tells him.
Back in the present day, Banks reaches out to attorney Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), the founder of the California Innocence Project, to help him get exonerated. Brooks agrees that the case was badly handled, but doesn’t see any new evidence that could help Banks. Moreover, Brooks makes the compelling argument that, while Banks has served his time, there are plenty of wrongly accused people still in prison who could use his help more. Kinnear cannily plays Brooks as a caring person, but also somewhat cynical from having challenged the criminal justice system so many times and lost.
Most of “Brian Banks” follows Banks’ efforts to find new evidence on his own and convince Brooks to take the case. Hodge is impressive as he plays Banks over a decade, evolving from cocky teen sports hero to chastened ex-con, conveying his anguish and determination but never letting the emotion boil over into melodrama.
Director Tom Shadyac, making his first foray into drama after a career in comedies like “Liar Liar” and “Bruce Almighty,” does a capable job, although he doesn’t always show the restraint that Atchison does in his screenplay or Hodge does in his performance. When Banks has an emotional epiphany while locked up in solitary confinement, Shadyac doesn't need to add sunlight suddenly pouring onto Banks’ face from a small window, like a light bulb going off in his head. And he lets Roquemore’s portrayal of Banks’ accuser veer towards broad stereotype, when it would have better served the film to humanize her.
Still, “Brian Banks” is an effective grown-up drama that runs a familiar route, but keeps us invested every step of the way.