A new drama written and directed by veteran actor Emilio Estevez, The Public centers on librarians Stuart Goodson (Estevez) and Myra (Jena Malone) and their struggles to maintain some kind of order at a downtown Cincinnati library that's on the verge of becoming a flophouse for the homeless.
The film features some fine acting performances by Estevez, Malone and the rest of the ensemble cast, but it lacks subtlety in delivering its heavy-handed message. It screens at 6:45 p.m. on Sunday at Tower City Cinemas, where it's the closing film of the 43rd Cleveland International Film Festival.
Though they really just love books, Stuart and Myra have embraced the challenges of running a downtown library that's frequented more by homeless people than by the general public. When someone sues the library for discrimination (the librarians asked a homeless man to leave because he smelled so bad), things take a turn, and politics come into the picture. That's not a good thing.
The film features a slew of subplots. One of them centers on the missing son of a detective (Alec Baldwin). A drug addict, he's disappeared even though he appears to still be alive and using his mother's debit card. The detective despondently searches for him.
Another subplot centers on Stuart's attractive neighbor who, in the process of fixing Stuart's heat one evening, has a deep conversation with him about why he became a librarian in the first place. The two have one of those undefined romantic relationships that doesn't quite make them boyfriend and girlfriend.
When temperatures drop into the single digits one night, the city's homeless converge on the library and ask if they can use it as a shelter. Stuart sympathizes with them but can't get permission for them to use the place as shelter from the cold. And yet, he lets them stay, setting up a standoff with the city's police and a sleazy district attorney Josh Davis (Christian Slater) who wants to become mayor.
Loaded with references to social and political issues, the film's dialog just doesn't feel natural. "God gives us all a voice; it's up to us whether we use it," says one of the homeless men who advocates keeping the "prophetic fire" alive and "making some noise" while he and his pals "occupy" the library.
Even though its various subplots come together nicely at the end, the movie never becomes particularly compelling despite its timely message.