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Lifting the Veil 

*Antwone Fisher (PG-13)
Fox Searchlight

With his debut directorial effort, Antwone Fisher, Denzel Washington has chosen to use his considerable Hollywood clout to expose a social ill that most people are aware of but rarely discuss.

The real Antwone Fisher, author of the memoir Finding Fish and screenwriter of the film, was born in prison to an incarcerated mother just a few months after his father was shot to death. He was raised in an abusive foster home then sent to reform school, then joined the Navy where he was finally forced to face the legacy of abuse -- uncontrollable anger, shame and lack of self worth -- with the help of a psychiatrist.

With Antwone Fisher, Washington and Fisher are lifting the veil over broken child welfare systems where as many as half-a-million of America's children are raised. All foster care is not abusive and the film doesn't imply that, but sub-standard care exists in every state and children continue to suffer in a system that polices itself, wrapped in a cloak of silence.

That's the soapbox. Now here's the movie.

The plot is relatively thin. Antwone, played by dynamic newcomer Derek Luke, beats up on his shipmates, goes to therapy, gets a girlfriend, begins to believe in himself and finally confronts the demons of his past. Dr. Davenport, stoically underplayed by Mr. Washington, helps Antwone while learning more about himself and his own problems. Girlfriend Cheryl, played by leggy and wholesome Joy Bryant, is a rock of good health, mental and physical, who puts her faith in Antwone despite all she knows about him.

The performances are strong. Luke combines boyishness with swagger as Antwone, riding a wide range of emotion. Washington is stellar as always and Bryant is a joy to watch. The chemistry between Luke and Bryant as two inexperienced young people falling in love is enjoyable and naturally portrayed.

The relationship between doctor and patient has some blessedly welcome humorous moments and Washington and Luke are solid in their web of mutual affection and dependency.

The screenplay is hit and miss. A subplot involving Dr. Davenport and his mysterious, depressed wife is not fleshed out enough to offer any insight. A pat explanation for the sterility in their marriage is offered at the end, but it's too late and too pat. A bizarre opening sequence, Antwone's dream of extended family that looks like The Color Purple on acid is designed to provide symmetry with the film's closing sequence -- The Cosby Show on steroids. Both belittle the important drama that lies in-between.

A weak, dreary musical soundtrack was made weaker and drearier by the sound equipment the night I saw the film, but Tinseltown management promised to fix that.

One of the more fascinating elements of Antwone Fisher is the authenticity of its setting -- a California Navy base. Shot on location, it's one of the few military films I can remember that actually places the viewer inside a military base, crossing its streets, inhabiting its sterile buildings, even shopping at the PX.

Antwone Fisher is competently shot and powerfully acted. It will no doubt be useful in raising awareness of a shameful national problem. It's not art but it's a worthy use of celluloid.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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