Therapy films usually follow the same pattern as romance films, a sort of one-sided romance of the subjects with themselves. In other words, it’s therapist meets patient, therapist loses patient, then therapist gets patient to open up with a big revelation to begin to heal. In films from “The Three Faces of Eve” to “Ordinary People,” we see the main character first resist and then embrace the challenges of self-knowledge and the opportunity for healing and change. But “Antwone Fisher,” a true story written by its subject, the journey inside himself is just the beginning. The story is not what goes on in his conversations with the doctor, but where that takes him.
Fisher (newcomer Derek Luke) is a sailor who is sent for a psychiatric evaluation to Dr. Davenport (director Denzel Washington) for getting into fights. At first, he refuses to talk. But Davenport insists that he sit in his office until he does. Finally, Fisher starts to tell Davenport his story of devastating neglect and abuse. And as he does, he finds himself opening up in other ways, even going on his very first date.
Davenport goes outside the Navy rules to continue to provide Fisher with therapy that turns into a real friendship that changes both their lives. He encourages Fisher to try to connect with his family so that he can understand his story better. Fisher confronts his abusive foster mother, meets the mother who abandoned him, and finds the family of the father who died before he was born.
The real-life Fisher was working as a security guard at a movie studio when he signed up for a screenwriting class. This is his first screenplay. That led to a book, Finding Fish, which became a best-seller. At first, the fact that this movie does not follow the usual pattern can feel disconcerting, even amateurish. There is an obvious tension between what is important to Fisher the person and what works on screen. Ultimately it gives the movie a kind of messiness and heart that provides some extra authenticity.
Washington does very well with his first directing job, especially with Luke and model Joy Bryant as Fisher’s girlfriend, both in their first major roles. Washington the director makes Washington the actor the foundation of the film, if not the story, a wise choice. As one of the very few in Hollywood who are at the same time fully actors and movie stars, his grace, dignity, sheer magnetism and ability to convey a complete character with every gesture are enough to carry an entire movie.
Parents should know that the movie deals frankly, if not graphically, with severe child abuse, including sexual abuse. Characters use strong language, including the n-word (used by African-Americans) and a gay slur. Fisher is justifiably proud of himself for not drinking, using drugs, or having promiscuous sex.
Families who see this movie should talk about what kept Fisher strong through all of the abuse. How did he have enough of a sense of himself to resist becoming a criminal, a drug user, or an abuser? Davenport gives Fisher a book that suggests that the beatings he received from his foster mother were a legacy of the beatings that slaves received from their white masters. What do you think of that perspective and is it more or less helpful than a more generalized perspective on child abuse? What does it mean to say that Fisher is “more honest in his anger” than most people? Why is it important that Fisher influenced and inspired Davenport? Families should also talk about the theme of forgiveness, the ability “to regard without ill will despite an offence.” Why is forgiveness more important for the person doing the forgiving than for the person being forgiven? They should talk about Fisher’s saying that he was ashamed for being unwanted, and the importance of forgiving those who do not appreciate us as a way of appreciating ourselves.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Prince of Tides, Ordinary People, K-Pax, and another film about a psychiatrist in the service, Captain Newman, M.D. starring Gregory Peck. And they should read Fisher’s book, Finding Fish.