A drama about urban mothers grieving after a senseless murder derails into a half-hearted action flick.
Lila & Eve
The writer David Foster Wallace once famously said, “A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.” Self-deception happens to the best of us, but director Charles Stone III’s latest drama-turned-action flick throws in an additional curveball: how does one stay sane in the face of personal tragedy? Lila (Viola Davis), understandably, is scarcely in her right mind after her teenage son is murdered in a drive-by shooting. Her rage amplifies as a pair of cops offer the usual platitudes but seem no closer to finding Stephon’s (Aml Ameen) killer. Lila’s only comfort, however small it might be, is a support group with other grieving mothers who recite at the end of each meeting the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change… Unfortunately, for Stephon’s murderer, Lila isn’t all that into accepting things.
Things shift from an interesting look into a mother’s pain (complete with the obligatory flashbacks to the days before Stephon’s death, just to remind us how tight-knit this single-mother household was), to a cat-and-mouse action thriller when Lila meets Eve (Jennifer Lopez) at one of her group meetings. Eve, who lost her daughter at an undefinable earlier juncture, is able to cut through the bullshit and say a lot of the things Lila is certainly thinking but too cautious to say: “You want the people who killed Stephon to feel what you’re feeling.” And with that, the pair of grieving mothers decide to take it upon themselves to do the police work they’re convinced the earnest Detective Holliston (Shea Whigham) and his legitimately lazy partner Alonzo (Chris Chalk) aren’t doing themselves.
For what seems to be, on the surface at least, a run-of-the-mill revenge flick fancied up with female leads instead of the generic blonde-boy-gone-bad, there’s actually (mercifully) a few bits of subtlety in both the performances and the script (by Pat Gilfillan) that carry the first half of the movie along at a promising rate. Lila’s grief, in the capable hands of Davis, never comes off as off-the-handle angry or even hopelessly grief-stricken—she appears on-screen as a mild tempered but strong woman, one who is going to defend the cheesy efforts of the women in the small group to Eve (“they’re just trying to help”), but at the same time isn’t going to get bullied around by a cop entering her home uninvited (“next time, call first”). We see the other women falling apart—one woman has convinced herself that, like Jesus, her son is coming back from the dead—but Lila, despite her love for that other Biblical passage—an eye for an eye—seems a bit more rational than the others. In fact, she takes the useless group advice to heart (“get a hobby”), and begins a project renovating her house. It’s because of Davis’ moving performance we don’t realize at first that our judgment might be just as clouded as Lila’s. As time goes on, some truths are unveiled: Maybe Detective Holliston isn’t so bad at his job. Maybe the women at the group do genuinely care. Maybe Eve, with her idea of a good night being to stake out Stephon’s potential killers, isn’t the best friend to have around. It’s interesting to realize how skewed the viewer’s perspective is by Lila’s inability to see anything good because, after all, that’s how real grief, real depression works.
But just as the character study gets cooking—complete with working class issues like running out of paid time off, caring for a remaining son with limited support, and starting a relationship with a good-natured man when you’re just not quite ready—in comes the vengeance of Lila and Eve, vigilante mothers taking on a hierarchical local gang, starting with the small fries and working up to the big boss. It’s just not as interesting as the drama that Davis and the support group thread seemed to be setting up, and retroactively, almost makes the earnestness in the acting in the first half seem not noteworthy, but bizarre. A twist near the end shakes the entire premise of the film and feels less “a ha” and more revealing of what the film lacks. Maybe the final dupe is that despite moving performances and an interesting B-plot—how working class mothers find support and healing—the A-plot is rather hollow. Davis is powerful as always, and Lopez actually hits the right note with her reckless, action-seeking Eve, but the performances don’t overcome that the more potent story was abandoned halfway through.