Movie Review: ‘Brian Banks’ is an emotional tale happy to leave gaps unfilled

The main question I had going into “Brian Banks,” the football redemption story that hits theaters this week, was this: How do you tell a compelling story about a man falsely accused of sexual assault in the #MeToo era?

The answer is multifaceted. While the film — based on Banks’ true story — makes every effort to support its protagonist’s case in the matter, some of those efforts leave important questions unresolved.

The film’s namesake is a young man who we catch up with while he is on probation, having served nearly six years in prison from a sexual assault plea when he was a prized high school football recruit. Through a combination of flashbacks, we learn his story of being falsely accused of rape by classmate Wanetta Gibson (whose name is changed in the film), taking bad advice from his lawyer, his determination to exonerate his name and try to get his life back.

At its core, “Brian Banks” is about capital “F” Football, Family, and Faith. If any of those things play a major role in your identity, you’ll certainly feel catered to. Director Tom Shadyac (in an interesting turn from past comedic projects like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “The Nutty Professor”) does not traffic in subtlety, leaving no doubt about the points he’s making.

It is a film that follows the basic tenant of screenwriting — put as many obstacles as possible in front of your protagonist to make them sympathetic — to an extreme.

There are some odd inconsistencies that nag at the film’s storytelling. Banks’ ankle bracelet serves as a constant reminder of the limits of his freedom, and he is constantly badgered by his parole officer anytime he ends up within the restricted distance of a school. It’s why he has to quit playing junior college football, stunting his comeback.

But, without explanation, after his PO tells him to leave an art gallery because it’s too close to a school … he goes straight to the University of Southern California football field for one of the film’s most pivotal scenes. It’s unclear why Long Beach City College qualifies as a school while USC doesn’t, other than to move the plot along.

There is also a painful attempt by the film’s love interest to equate what Banks has endured to her own feelings of ostracization … as an art major. It’s a decision made even more confounding and unnecessary when we learn more about her later in the film.

But the biggest question left unanswered, at least in a concrete way, is the motivation behind the false accusation of rape, which research has found is the case in only 2-10% of reported sexual assault, based on various studies compiled by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

The film gestures toward multiple possible motives — that Gibson felt jilted, rejected, and lashed out; that she just didn’t want to get in trouble, letting a security guard’s suggestion turn into a wild accusation. But we never really hear from Gibson why she made her accusation. She is painted as unintelligent and single-minded, reaching out to Banks years after the incident completely oblivious to the havoc she’s wreaked on his life to try to hook up with him.

Gibson’s mother, Wanda Rhodes, is depicted as the real villain, waging a war against the innocent Banks, presumably for the $1.5 million settlement she’d eventually receive from the Long Beach School District following his plea bargain. Perhaps it was all as simple as that. But the lack of depth written into those characters leaves the ultimate question of why Gibson concocted a story that ostensibly ruined the life of someone she was fond of unanswered.

While the repeated efforts to drive home Banks’ unfortunate reality help us appreciate what it means to clear his name, against the backdrop of the work of the California Innocence Project, the stakes can’t help but feel a bit low. As the film points out, Banks has already been released from prison. Meanwhile, other cases at the CIP are, presumably, pushed to the back burner, with wrongly convicted innocents waiting their turn behind bars while the organization devotes its attention to this case.

Banks’ dream of reaching the NFL isn’t any less credible than anyone else’s — football is what he excelled at, what gave him a potential path to a better life. But by that point, in his late 20s, the goal of making the NFL was a singular one for himself. He wasn’t doing it to support a family, and he never even played more than a preseason game in the league. Yet that preseason game is presented as the pinnacle, the big payoff for all his efforts. In the end, even the biggest football fan (perhaps especially them) might find themselves asking, “Is that it?”

Banks has gone on to work as a motivational speaker in his life since then, and it seems like a missed opportunity to not focus on the work he’s done helping others, as well as his continued work for the CIP.

If you’re looking for an uplifting story of redemption for a wrongly-accused man fighting back against a cold, uncaring criminal justice system, “Brian Banks” makes for a pleasant enough distraction. Just don’t expect an exploration of the complicated realities of sexual assault claims that might help explain why this one was different.

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