Producer: Patrick Riley   Director: Philip Harder   Screenplay: Philip Harder   Cast: Devon Bostick, Natalia Dyer, Marchánt Davis, Tate Donovan, YG, Ella Rae Peck, Birgundi Baker, Bruce Bohne and Tony Papenfuss   Distributor: Cinedigm

Grade: C+

Philip Harder’s debut feature, adapted from W. Glasgow Phillip’s 1994 novel, juggles two major plot lines in an unwieldy coming-of-age combination.  Set in 1972 in the titular city—creating an ambience by beginning with newsreel footage of George Wallace ostentatiously trying to obstruct black students from integrating the University of Alabama there in 1963 (and of his later being shot), as well as of combat in Vietnam—it centers on Billy Mitchell (Devon Bostick), a shaggy-haired college boy who’s returned home to do lawn work at the psychiatric hospital run by his rigid, racist father (Tate Donovan), who’s irritated by his son’s slacker ways.

Billy daydreams a lot, mostly about the death of his mother twenty years earlier in a car crash.  She was leaving Tuscaloosa with her African-American maid, and Billy often ruminates about the circumstances of their death.  He wonders where they were going, and why, and even whether his father might have had something to do with the accident. 

His reveries are interrupted one day, however, by Virginia (Natalia Dyer), an energetic young thing who’s a patient at the institute—though she seems perfectly fine to him.  It’s no wonder that he’s immediately attracted to her, and connives to take her off the grounds with him.  Soon their flirtation has become serious, and Billy’s taking her for drives on a regular basis—without his father’s knowledge, of course.

His destination is usually a rustic barbecue place run by Nigel (Marchánt Davis), the son of the maid who died with his mother.  Billy considers Nigel his best friend, practically his brother.  But Nigel, who is in danger of being drafted, is falling more and more under the influence of Antoine (YG), an activist who insists they have to get involved in breaking the stranglehold the racist town leaders—including Billy’s father—have over them all, using violence if necessary.  Billy’s too naïve to see—or care about—the truth, and his relationship with Nigel deteriorates as the one with Virginia escalates.

The two narrative threads join at the end, as Billy’s father suggests that he might send Virginia away for more stringent treatment—perhaps a lobotomy.  Billy determines they should run away together just as Nigel reaches a critical point in his decision about taking action against the city’s entrenched power structure, and pointing out to Billy that they’re far less close than he’s always believed.

You have to respect the film’s ambition—it has a wide reach—but it’s not completely successful in tying the various themes together, and runs out of energy toward the close.  That’s despite dedicated work from the cast—Bostick’s laid-back attitude makes him rather a stick, but Dyer and Davis are more animated, and Donovan brings a smarmy slickness to the doctor.  There’s also a nice turn by Bruce Bohne as Pops, who sometimes commiserates with Billy.

The film is also technically fine.   Cinematographer Theo Stanley manages to give it a convincing sense of place though it was shot in Minnesota, and production designer Mark Wojahn and costumer Deborah Fiscus add a solid period feel.  Clayton Condit’s editing is good, while Joshua R. Mosley and Matt Hutchinson’s music complements the action nicely.

There’s so much that’s good about “Tuscaloosa” that it’s a pity it doesn’t quite work as a whole.