Earnest but prosaic, “Brian Banks” tells the true-life story of a young man imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit who, after his release, enlists the California Innocence Project to help him get his conviction vacated. It’s a particularly difficult situation because he accepted a plea bargain in which his “nolo contendere” was the legal equivalent of a confession. No cash awards for guessing the outcome of his struggle.
Actually, what happens is a fairly well-known matter of public record, since Banks later became fairly well-known as the oldest rookie to play in the NFL, when at 28 he appeared in four preseason games with the Atlanta Falcons.
That stint, however brief, was the culmination of a dream Banks (played by Aldis Hodge) had embraced since he was a standout athlete at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, where in 2002, as a junior having already committed to playing college ball at the University of Southern California, he was falsely accused of rape by a fellow student (here called Kennisha Rice, and played by Xosha Roquemore). Under pressure from her mother, Rice brings charges against him with the police; they will also file suit against the school district and win an award of $1.5 million.
On advice of his court-appointed lawyer, who suggested that he would receive probation, Banks pleaded no contest, but the judge sentenced him to six years’ in prison. In prison Banks took to heart the message of his counselor (Morgan Freeman, uncredited) not to give in to anger and try to take positive charge of his life, but upon his release, Banks finds his options limited by the need to register as a sex offender and wear an ankle monitor, watched over by his stern parole officer (Dorian Missick).
The situation makes it difficult to find work, and impossible to follow his football dream. And although he begins a romance with Karina (Melanie Liburd), a trainer at a gym where he applies for work, he has to overcome her misgivings when she finds out about his past. That’s why he tries repeatedly to enlist the help of the Innocence Project, though its head Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) explains that the obstacles to winning an overturning of his conviction are almost insuperable.
Nonetheless Brooks, pressured by his staff, is drawn to Banks’s side, and when Kennisha unexpectedly contacts Brian, it provides a slim opening for the case to be reopened. The hurdles are significant however, even after Justin persuades the D.A. to join in his efforts to have Banks exonerated.
The strongest element of the film lies in the committed performance by Hodge, who captures the necessary mixture of passion and vulnerability. In her way Roquemore is equally convincing, moving from naïve coquettishness toward the start to worn-down defeatism at the close. Liburd and Sherri Shepherd, as Brian’s ever-supportive mother, are okay, and Freeman contributes his customary gravitas. But Kinnear brings little but his lightweight brand of likability to Brooks, and under the rather lackadaisical hand of Tom Shadyac, the rest of the supporting cast ranges from overeager to bland.
With unremarkable technical work from production designer Teresa Mastropierro, cinematographer Ricardo Diaz and editor Greg Hayden, “Brian Banks” plays like a docu-drama more suited to the small screen than the megaplex, but Hodge’s performance is deserving of notice—as is also the fact that its story of a false accusation by a woman against a man might cause some consternation in a climate that is inclined to take such claims as true unless decisively disproven.