What a lovely film.
An semi-autobiographical account of director Barry Levinson's (Rainman, Good Morning, Vietnam) childhood in Baltimore, Liberty Heights is the fourth in his series of Baltimore pictures, following Diner, Tin Men and Avalon. Not failing the critical success of those earlier films, Levinson's latest offering is an incredibly tender, poignant and sweet account of a town where everyone is simply trying to figure out what it means to be anything--white, black, Jew, good or bad.
The story of Liberty Heights is, very simply, the account of a summer in the '60's, where two boys, Van (Adrien Brody) and Ben (Ben Foster) are growing up in a very traditional Jewish family. Their grandmother believes that the most salient point in the story of Samson and Delilah is that Samson killed all the goyim. Their father, Nate, runs a gambling racket disguised as a strip-joint. At the same time, the two boys are being exposed to a world beyond that of the traditional Jewish one--older son Van is seduced by the WASPish world of white bread neighbourhoods, frat boys and beautiful blond girls, and falls in love with stunner Dubbie (played by model Carolyn Murphy); Ben finds himself drawn to a black girl, Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson). A quiet rebellion thus results in the movie as the two boys get closer and closer to girls that are disapproved of by their family, and start moving into their worlds.
It is in the midst of this delicate situation that Levinson has chosen to set his exploration of identity, and the beauty of the film is that with so much potential for giving offense, Levinson is unafraid to discuss politically incorrect issues or to portray stereotypes as much as he wants, and produces a film which conversely, speaks volumes in subtleties about identity and race and religious relations. Unafraid to offend therefore, the film is respite with wickedly humorous moments, such as when Van insists to his friends that men from minority races are better endowed, or when Ben dresses up on Halloween as Adolf Hitler.
There is no judgement passed in this film about the different characters, all of who are simply, as human as can be portrayed. Ben's parents are horrified by his attraction to a black girl, and his father especially is a criminal. Yet they are also the same ones who waltz with each other by candlelight, and go to jail with dignity and calm. Van's frat boy friend, Trey, is a drunkard and a friend of a bigot who picks fights with Jews, yet he also forms real affection for Van, and in a thoroughly confused but sweet gesture, tries to hook Van up with his girlfriend.
The ensemble cast as well is particularly well-suited to this gentle exploration. On one hand, we have Tony award winning actors Bebe Neuwirth and Joe Mantegna lending real gravitas and heart to their roles as the parents of the two boys. On the other hand, we have a cast of largely unknown actors, many in their feature film debuts, which perhaps contributes to that gently searching and hesitant quality so poignant and well-suited to a film about identity.
Add to all this the confident hands of Hong Kong cinematographer Chris Doyle who paints the countryside of Baltimore with the lush landscapes it deserves, and really, the end result is a film that does not try to be ambitious, but merely to, without prejudice and malice, lend us an insight into growing up in a non-homogenous place. And this reviewer leaves the theatre with a smile on her face and an unknown aching in her heart. Like I said, what a very, very lovely film.