The Last Black Man in San Francisco review – heartfelt yet twee ode to the city | Sundance 2019

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Few films at this year’s Sundance will start with quite the same confidence as The Last Man in San Francisco, a melancholic yet vibrant ode to a rapidly gentrifying city. Despite being inspired by a true story, director Joe Talbot places us in lush, stylised, often surreal territory as we meet two best friends, Jimmie and Mont, black men who find themselves pushed out by an increasingly white population.

In an intriguing gambit, Jimmie is played by the man who he’s loosely based on, first-time actor Jimmie Fails, and it’s his friendship with Talbot that led to the film’s conception. Jimmie is still struggling to come to terms with the loss of his childhood home, one that was built by his grandfather in the 1940s, and it pains him to see the disrepair that’s followed from owners who might have more money but don’t have the same attachment as he does. When the house briefly becomes embroiled in legal issues, Jimmie uses the opportunity to stake his claim and make a defiant stand.

From a Kickstarter campaign to a Brad Pitt-produced feature, the story behind the camera is as inspiring as the one in front, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco is nothing if not genuine. It’s a lovingly crafted visual poem that chooses idealism over cynicism and holds back on the rage that could have understandably fuelled a film focusing on gentrification. There’s loss but also hope and at times the film recalls a far less manic Be Kind Rewind, both films mourning a sense of community and spearheaded by characters desperate to bring it back (both films also happen to star Danny Glover, here playing Mont’s blind, film-loving father).

Using a non-professional actor to play a fictionalised version of himself is a brave gamble but despite inexperience, Fails is a charming, natural presence and adds extra emotional heft given his attachment to both the city and the specifics of the story. He’s matched by rising star Jonathan Majors, last seen in White Boy Rick, as Mont, whose sensitive writer also helps to make the film’s heart beat. Majors boasts a bewitching sincerity, his face expressing much more than his dialogue. It’s rare to see a male friendship shown on screen with such intimacy and a total apathy toward sexuality, neither character showing any interest in romance or sex outside of their alliance. But despite how impressive both performances may be, their characters are thinly etched, with Mont in particular feeling more like a collection of indie movie tics than a real person.

Talbot’s direction is also weighed down with a similar problem. His technical skills are remarkably accomplished for a first-time film-maker with striking, artful visuals carefully capturing the ornate beauty of San Francisco from a man whose love for the city is made apparent. But there’s also a tendency to fall into an overkill of twee, the film sometimes feeling too deliberate and overstyled. There are great sequences and moments (anything involving the sorely underused Tichina Arnold is a highlight) but the plot is loose and scatty, often playing by the rules and logic of a kids’ movie, especially in the misfiring last act. The further Talbot leans into the framework of fantasy, the harder it becomes to invest and newcomer Emile Mosseri’s wonderful, heartbreaking score is at times forced to carry most of the emotional lifting.

It’s a shaggy, wistful film that acts as a heartfelt tribute to both a city and a friendship and when the cutesy quirk that surrounds it is dialled down, we’re able to appreciate the underpinning earnestness. There’s reality and heart stirring underneath the artifice, I just wish more of it had been allowed to shine through.

Source: The Guardian
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