Tim Disney's American Violet is a film of which I don’t enjoy being overly critical. It’s easy and kind of fun to rip into worthless junk like Death Race, but this drama has such a righteous and respectable goal that gives me no pleasure in pointing out its shortcomings. Everyone's heart is in the right place and the way that drug laws are ridiculously enforced in this country should definitely be brought to the forefront of more people's minds. Minimum sentences, rushed plea bargains, and over-the-top drug enforcement tactics that claim innocent bystanders on a regular basis have rendered the war on drugs nearly as damaging as the drug trade itself. One of those victims was Regina Kelly, a 24-year-old single mother of four who was swept in by a drug bust, even though she had done nothing wrong. Thrown in a cell and offered a ten-year suspended sentence, Kelly, renamed Dee Roberts (newcomer Nicole Beharie) in the film that tells her story, refused and chose to fight. American Violet puts a critic in an awkward position in that the subject matter is vital and hasn't attracted nearly as much of the national conversation as it should have, but that alone doesn't excuse melodramatic execution, TV-movie structuring, and a ham-fisted narrative that just doesn't work. Clearly, with the way I feel about the collateral damage of the drug war, I wanted to like American Violet, but intentions don't make for a quality film.
Dee is a waitress at a local diner. One day, while on her shift, a drug bust goes down in her housing project. Everyone nearby gets swept up by an overzealous district attorney (Michael O'Keefe). Cops go to Dee's workplace and arrest her, claiming that an informant says he bought crack from her. That's apparently all you need to build a case in Texas – someone can say they bought drugs from you and the cops and courts believe them with no further proof. Dee is offered a plea but she refuses to take it when she's done nothing wrong. Her mother (Alfre Woodard) encourages her to take the offer, if just for the safety of her children, now in the relatively apathetic hands of the father (Xzibit) of two of them. With the help of her Reverend (Charles S. Dutton), an ACLU attorney (Tim Blake Nelson), and a former local narcotics officer (Will Patton), Dee tackles the corrupt, misguided, and damaging system.
Thematically, there's a lot to like here, but the execution couldn't be more heavy-handed and two-dimensional. Nearly every line in the film is a variation on "We can fight the system." It's one of those scripts (by Bill Haney) that telegraphs everything without once feeling organic. Not one of the supporting characters in American Violet sounds or feels genuine. They feel like mouthpieces for a message and, even if I agree with that message and sympathize with the incredible hardship and courage of Dee/Regina, I can't excuse the poor filmmaking that brings it to the big screen. Director Tim Disney (great-nephew of Walt) doesn't get under the fingernails of these characters. The plight of Dee just doesn't feel real. Even the jail scenes look like actors on a set. Woodard, Dutton, Nelson, and Patton are fantastic character actors who simply don't register because of the lackluster script and shallow direction.
Besides a message worth hearing and a story that should be told, American Violet does feature one more thing that nearly makes it worth seeing and saves it from complete disaster – a great debut performance. Nicole Behaire avoids a lot of the melodrama that lesser actresses would have turned to with this character. Of everyone involved in the production on either side of the camera, I most admired the decisions made by Behaire in reflecting the pride and confidence in herself that this daring single mother must have had. She's the only reason to see American Violet. Otherwise, you should just read about the story of Regina Kelly, another woman swept up in a racist drug war that appears to have no end and unacceptable collateral damage.
Rating: TWO BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: April 17th, 2009
Starring: Nicole Beharie, Will Patton, Alfre Woodard, Michael O’Keefe, Tim Blake Nelson, Anthony Mackie, Xzibit, and Charles S. Dutton
Director: Tim Disney
Writer: Bill Haney