The Public is a new ensemble drama film written, directed by, and starring Emilio Estevez. The movie is about a group of homeless people who, led by the librarian, lay claim on the Cincinnati Public Library as a shelter to avoid freezing in a particularly harsh cold spell. It played at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
The first twenty minutes of this film are absolutely ridiculous. Some of the events and dialogue that happen in this beginning portion are inexplicable and will make you wonder what you have gotten yourself into. It starts with a retro video explaining the importance of the public library, then transitions into a hip-hop fueled montage establishing the theme of homelessness, only to transition again into a comedy laced with racism and anti-semitism.
Once the movie finally finds its tone as a serious drama, it does begin to come together and the story becomes somewhat compelling because the protest at the core of the film is interesting. However, one of the core issues with the movie is that the stakes are not high enough. It seems like the level of action being taken on both sides is excessive and the negative consequences are not significant enough.
The film is also very heavy-handed in terms of the political message it has. It seems like this movie is little more than Estevez’s attempt to make a statement about homelessness and the political system’s disappointing problem of ignoring it. The theme is evident in the first five minutes, so spending a full two hours on it seems overly indulgent.
Additionally, this largely fails as an ensemble film because it does not provide the audience with characters that are particularly compelling. The protagonist, played by Estevez himself, is the only character in the movie that is even remotely interesting, and a significant majority of his backstory is delivered by exposition. The other characters are all archetypal and not particularly sympathetic.
The film is mediocre on a technical level too. Nothing is particularly bad, but everything is simple and straightforward. The cinematography is bland. The editing is generic. Perhaps the most disappointing part of the movie’s execution is that it does not fully take advantage of the main location. Had the production design been more detailed and impressive, the film likely could have used that as a starting point for everything else to be improved.
The only real success of this movie is the acting, and that is because of the phenomenal level of talent that was assembled for the cast. There are so many strong names in the cast, including Estevez, Gabrielle Union, Jena Malone, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Taylor Schilling, Jeffrey Wright, and Michael Kenneth Williams. All of them give good performances — in fact, so good that you wish the film had given them more to do.
Overall, The Public was a mostly disappointing movie that exists for little more than the politics. It’s a shame that such a talented ensemble was wasted on a film like this.
The Public opens in theaters on April 5.