The Public (2019)
Directed by Emilio Estevez
“Breakfast Club” alum Emilio Estevez must have a thing for groups of people crammed into libraries after-hours, because in adapting an L.A. Times article (written 12 years ago to this very day) about the Salt Lake City Public Library’s homeless dilemma, he put himself right back into that familiar situation. As writer and director of “The Public” (set and filmed in Cincinnati, not Salt Lake City), Estevez shines a light on a story ripe for movie adaptation.
Even on the warm mornings, many of Cincinnati’s homeless population (like the homeless in any urban center) congregate at the front door of the public library, waiting for it to open. But in the winter, the want of shelter becomes a need. Inside, they brush their teeth, read books, browse the Internet, and generally do whatever it takes to stay inside, where it’s climate-controlled. One especially cold night, a group of homeless men decide to stage a demonstration. When the library closes, they decide not to leave. Recently, exposure to the cold has killed multiple homeless people. With all the shelters already full, these men have nowhere else to go. Librarian Stuart Goodson (Estevez) understands their plight, and risks his career to help. Police are called to the scene, and with the assistance of Goodson’s boss (Jeffrey Wright), a detective (Alec Baldwin) and the county prosecutor (Christian Slater) try to negotiate an end to this misunderstood situation.
It is clear that in researching for this film, Estevez became truly invested in the plight of the homeless, if he wasn’t already passionate about the subject before. But his script sometimes has a problem with grandstanding. Estevez feels the need to spell out the homelessness problem, and to hammer home what needs to be done about it. Instead, he should have let the movie’s dire plot speak for itself—I think it would have. The dialogue he wrote, especially in the early part of the movie, is wholly unnatural. What’s odd is that he gave his own character the worst bits of it—you would think that he would at least be able to figure out some natural-sounding dialogue for himself. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by how Christian Slater and Jeffrey Wright’s performances stand out despite the so-so script. It’s a testament to their talent.
“The Public” also has a gender-disparity problem. Yes, most homeless people are men. But an estimated half of all homeless people are either women or members of homeless families. Also, 5-10% of homeless people have pets. But none of these homeless people are represented in the movie, aside from one homeless woman who is shown during the daytime scenes but presumably found a shelter to stay in during the men’s demonstration. But I hate to criticize a movie for not going far enough to tell the story of America’s homeless, when I was hard-pressed to think of another movie that cared enough to try focusing on them at all. In the end, “The Public” does find a way to share a story of ho(m/p)e in the face of ho(m/p)elessness. For that alone, it deserves to be seen.