1982 Tommy Oliver

1982 Tommy Oliver
6
Heartstrings will be tugged in this poignant, streetwise tale of a father trying to shelter his daughter from the destructive fallout of her mother's drug addiction. A family drama first and foremost, Tommy Oliver's debut film takes a personal approach to shining a light on the frontline of the American crack epidemic. The writer/director's experiences growing up in West Philadelphia inform this earnest depiction of tough love and tireless devotion as responses to agonizing selfishness.

Through the eye of an old video camera, Oliver introduces a happy, carefree family; it's a state of being that will soon belong to history as surely as the events of the grainy home movies Tim (Hill Harper) takes great pleasure in shooting. Fawning over his wife at breakfast, he's clearly as enamoured as ever with Shenae (Sharon Leal), but there are already cracks of agitation and impatience in her demeanour. That's when Alonzo (Wayne Brady) enters the scene.

A local gangster recently released from prison, he's also Shenae's former lover, supplier and, presumably, pimp. Oliver makes sure we know the charming drug dealer is not someone to be trifled with — he's the sort of guy with whom the words, "Don't make me ask twice" are accompanied by the smell of burning flesh. When Shenae's extended sleepovers at "a friend's house" turn into an outright disappearance, the audience is well aware of what ten-year-old Maya (Troi Zee) isn't: her mother is in a bad way, to put it tenderly.

When she does return periodically, looking for money to score her next fix, watching an increasingly frazzled, cruel and violent Shenae exploit her family's trust is heartbreaking, especially from the perspective of a pre-teen unaware of the chemically-induced cause. Turning on her sexual allure or motherly concern only long enough to get what she wants forces Tim to make increasingly difficult decisions to protect his daughter and sanity. Hill Harper gives a carefully measured, powerhouse performance, burying roiling emotions just beneath the surface of his gaze, letting loose flickers of warm compassion, profound despair, gut-wrenching fear and seething rage, as appropriate.

Preferring an intimate, low-key aesthetic, Oliver focuses on coaxing emotionally realistic performances out of his cast, working wonders with Wayne Brady, Leal and newcomer Troi Zee, as well as Harper. Why the filmmaker chose his on-screen avatar to be a precocious little girl is a psychological examination for another time; Maya's gender has absolutely no bearing on the story. That she's a very bright girl — to drive the point home, she's reading The Odyssey — who doesn't need to be shielded from the truth is of paramount concern to the picture.

Despite a few slow-moving scenes and an ending that trails off after it plays a series of extremely heavy-handed cards more than it creates a sense of closure, 1982 is a moving debut that illuminates the heavy human toll of addiction. (Black Squirrel)