The Public: Important Social Issue Fails to Sway in Middling Drama

By Kim Hughes

Rating: B-

In her recent work The Library Book, author Susan Orlean brilliantly chronicles the history of libraries and the vital role they play in the communities they serve.

Much more than just places to quietly read and look stuff up, libraries connect seniors and the poor to the internet, help the jobless mine employment resources, provide latchkey kids with after-school activities and, increasingly, offer the homeless and precariously housed safe places to kill time and regroup without threat of ejection or worse.

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In The Public, writer/director Emilio Estevez explores similar themes while questioning just how far city-funded public services should go to help vulnerable members of our communities. The result, while noble in spirit and with a terrific ensemble cast, isn’t nearly as impactful as it should be, presenting dog-eared truisms as revelations and offering a story that rarely rises above middling.

Estevez plays Stuart Goodson, a quintessential librarian right down to his soft voice and gentle gait. Goodson’s a good guy, and good to those around him, and it’s clear we are meant to root for his success despite his deep silos of reserve, which contrast mightily with perky, righteous, and left-leaning Myra (Jenna Malone), also a librarian and one who likely read the Orlean book.

The Public begins by introducing a rag-tag group, some homeless, others merely lonely or displaced but all known to library staff — including security chief Ernesto (Jacob Vargas) — by first name and idiosyncratic quirk. All patronize the Cincinnati Public Library for different reasons but are well-served by its tolerant staff and very existence.

When closing time rolls around on an especially frigid night, a band of homeless patrons led by Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams) refuse to leave, insisting the space should be used as an ad-hoc shelter. What begins as a nonviolent act of civil disobedience quickly escalates into a tense standoff with local riot police commanded by a negotiator (Alec Baldwin) whose missing wayward son may be inside.

The Public acknowledges issues concerning the homeless, namely mental illness, addiction, absent social services, and a lack of societal willpower to help. But it does so with a hammer and a host of caricatures: a callous and preening local TV reporter (Gabrielle Union), a shrewdly strategizing mayoral hopeful (Christian Slater) and Stuart’s tough-as-nails potential soul mate (Taylor Schilling).

As the film progresses, Goodson, Myra and Ernesto emerge alternately as advocates, peacekeepers and dupes, struggling against outside forces to do the right thing but ultimately unable to battle a systemic problem that touches every aspect of modern life. The good guys and the bad guys are at times inseparable, and whose library is it anyway?

Goodson’s own back story, we eventually learn, complicates his role in the proceedings exponentially, a point that could have been better leveraged for dramatic effect. As such, the film’s unapologetically symbolic final act — meant to be rousing — scans as absurd, presenting a dissident aspect of Goodson’s character that is previously unseen and unexplored.

The Public, which played at TIFF last fall, is the kind of movie you want to like and that probably needs to get made and seen. But needing to see something and wanting to see it are different things.

The Public. Written and directed by Emilio Estevez. Starring Emilio Estevez, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Jena Malone, Taylor Schilling, Michael K. Williams, Gabrielle Union and Jacob Vargas. Opens April 26 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal and throughout the spring in other cities.