4 Stars - Inspiring
The opening dream sequence of Antwone Fisher’s autobiographical film depicts a homecoming of heavenly proportions. Similar to the biblical image of the feast of heaven in which the beloved of God will come to a table prepared for them, Antwone enters what appears to be an old barn, but inside are the smiling faces of hundreds of people who place him at the seat of honor before a magnificent feast. The feeling of belonging and love is so powerful it is overwhelming as it represents the deepest longings of Antwone’s soul. Director Denzel Washington chooses three different actors to portray Antwone, David Kelly, Cory Hodges and Derek Luke in this film written and scripted by Fisher.
Born in prison and abandoned by his mother, Antwone (David Kelly) never knew his father. Placed within a foster family who abused him physically, sexually and spiritually, Antwone learned to survive but buried his pain beneath a seething anger. After enlisting in the Navy, he is forced to seek psychiatric care when his fighting gets out of control.
The psychiatrist into whose care he is placed is also struggling with his deep disappointment in not having been able to father a child. Their mutual longing for family creates a healing tension in both of their lives. Dr. Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington) is a kind and persistent officer who is able to forge a bond with Antwone in part because he will not let him go. Forced to come for evaluation, Antwone spends session after session behind the mute walls of his pain. But when he begins to open up, the connection of doctor and patient is quickly one of mystical power.
A corollary to the healing love that begins to flow in this official and required interaction is Antwone’s timid reaching out to the beautiful and shy Cheryl (Joy Bryant). Seeing her in the commissaries’ bookstore, Antwone adores her from a distance until Cheryl makes the first move. This informal and natural desire of his developing manhood is as much a part of his healing as is his therapy.
This is most often the nature of true healing. Professional care that finds its power in the practices of educated and methodical interventions must be balanced with the loving care of another person who simply accepts us as we are. This combination allows Antwone to experience necessary growth while being fully accepted as he is.
Although the autobiographical nature of the film greatly simplifies both the process of recovery from childhood abuse as well as idealizing both Cheryl and Antwone as people, the journey is so universal that we don’t mind these weaknesses. The memories of both our childhood pains and our first loves are more like those Antwone brings to the screen than they are to the realism we often see presented in films. The effect causes the entire film to feel like “home” to the viewer who recognizes its emotional truth.
When Dr. Davenport stops the therapy to empower Antwone to seek his free and independent future beyond their therapeutic relationship, he urges Antwone to find his mother. Reluctant at first but supported by Cheryl, Antwone does so and the homecoming he experiences is both disappointing and releasing as he brings his past into his future.
In the final scene when Antwone’s dreams of belonging to a family are realized, the tears many of us shed were not only those of empathetic sympathy but also of deep awareness that this is where heaven is truly to be found: in the loving circle of family and friends as we feast together.