After years of torturous abuse at the hands of his foster family, Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke) has escaped the misery of his early life, finding isolation and a small sense of peace in the U.S. Navy. But all is not well for the young man. Anger over his upbringing and doubts about his self-worth have left him withdrawn and occasionally violent, which results in multiple fights with fellow shipmates. To decide his future in the Navy, Fisher is sent to see psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington). As Davenport probes deeper into an initially reluctant Fisher's past, the horror stories of his patient's adolescence come out, and over time a powerful bond forms between the two men. The picture is based on Fisher's own autobiography, "Finding Fish," and he also scripted the film.
For all its restrained power, and less than subtle sentimentality, one cannot help feeling that this ground was already covered in Gus Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting." "Antwone Fisher" (IMDb listing) follows the same tale of broken-youth-repaired-by-benevolent-therapist, but this film goes a little more for the throat, whereas as "Hunting" was carefully made, and a tinge more lyrical. This makes "Fisher" more vivid, as it doesn't shy away from amazing moments of horror, nor does it fail when it comes to soliciting tears from the material.
"Antwone Fisher's" claim to fame is that it is Denzel Washington's directorial debut. Always a dedicated actor unwilling to waver for audience sympathy, Washington unexpectedly goes for simple sentimentality with "Fisher." A true account of the young man's beatings and sexual abuse might be too much to bear if presented through an unwavering eye. However, Washington tries to place too neat a spin on the whole ordeal, with Fisher's confrontation with his past (and family) far too pat for satisfaction. The climax of "Antwone Fisher" is perpetually sweet, and has a heart the size of Texas, but it sends the wrong message of a clean break for Fisher, when I doubt it was that easy in real life.
While the script cannot always be counted on for honesty, Derek Luke's performance as Antwone properly reveals Fisher's weight-of-the-world burden. A relative newcomer, Luke embraces the role with everything he's got, nailing Fisher's inner rage along with his slowly uncovered willingness to passionately love again. Placed against the iconic proficiency of Washington's acting, Luke manages quite nicely in the role.
Surprisingly, or thankfully, Washington isn't playing up his usual force-of-nature confidence. In a smaller supporting role, Washington is simply there to support Luke. The script attempts to give the Davenport character a subplot, detailing his troubled marriage, but it doesn't work. This superfluous aside only manages to keep the attention away from the stronger story found in Fisher's emotional expedition. After winning an Academy Award for his work in last year's "Training Day," it's wonderful to see Washington tackle a story smaller than his normal routine.
The journey in "Antwone Fisher" is far more compelling than its end result. Denzel Washington makes for an impressively subtle director, and imperfect as "Fisher" most certainly is, this is a winning debut, and an incredible story to behold.
Filmfodder Grade: B