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In "the public" an unusually bitter Arctic blast has made its way to downtown Cincinnati and the front doors of the public library where the action of the film takes place. The story revolves around the library patrons, many of whom are homeless, mentally ill and marginalized, as well as an exhausted and overwhelmed staff of librarians who often build emotional connections and a sense of obligation to care for those regular patrons. At odds with library officials over how to handle the extreme weather event, the Patrons turn the building into a homeless shelter for the night by staging an "Occupy" sit in. What begins as an act of civil disobedience becomes a stand off with police and a rush-to-judgment media constantly speculating about what's really happening. This David versus Goliath story tackles some of our nation's most challenging issues, homelessness and mental illness and sets the drama inside one of the last bastions of democracy-in-action: your public library.
Well-intended homeless drama falls short as a captivating and engrossing movie
"The Public" (2018 release; 122 min.) brings the story of Stuart and a group of homeless people. As the movie opens, after an old B&W TV ad for recruiting librarians, we get some gorgeous shots of downtown Cincinnati, and then quickly shift to Stuart, who is about to start his shift at the Main Library as one of the main librarians. It is bitterly cold, and a homeless group can't wait for the library to open so they can get so much needed warmth and shelter. Meanwhile, Stuart is called in by his boss: it turns out the library has been sued by someone claiming discrimination (he was forced to leave the library because of many complaints about his body odor). The Hamilton County Prosecutor, who is about to run for Mayor, sees this as a major problem. Back in the library, the homeless grow restless and fearful of spending another night out in the open, as there is no let-up on the cold spell... At this point we are 10 min. into the movie, but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest labor of love from director/producer/writer/actor Emilio Estevez (who plays the Stuart role). Here he find a social and political sensitive topic: what to do with the many homeless in this country's big cities. Estevez has assembles an all-star ensemble cast: Alec Baldwin is a Cincinnati Police Department detective and crisis negotiator; Christian Slater is the Prosecutor with ambitions for higher office; Micheal K. Williams is the 'front person' of the homeless who want to "Occupy" the Main Library; Taylor Schilling is the building manager Stuart's apartment building (and love interest). The cast is an impressive list. And for the first hour or so, the movie clips along nicely. Alas in the second hour, the movie gets bogged down in the negotiations between CPD and the homeless, and Estevez moves about with the subtlety of a bull in a china shop. A darn shame. Not to mention that the movie is far too long, and could easily have been trimmed by 15-20 min. (if not more) without losing any of its essence and message. Kudos to the photography, which is excellent. And if you are amazed how big the Main Library building seems to be, you are right! It is a maze, and the film conveys that nicely. Did you know that the Cincinnati/Hamilton County library system is by circulation the second largest in the entire country (only New York City's is busier, with of course a much larger population).
"The Public" premiered last Fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, and opened in a limited release last weekend. Because the movie was filmed entirely here in Cincinnati (where I live), in early 2017, it received a nice boost from the art-house theater where it is showing, with a release on the largest screen it has. The Thursday early evening screening where I saw this at was, not surprisingly for a Thursday, not well attended (7 people, including myself). I really, really wanted to like this movie more, and I certainly do not mind having seen it. But the weak script, in particular the movie's second half, leave me no choice but to give it a mixed rating. Of course I encourage you to check it out, be it at the theater, on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
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