Celebrated painter Titus Kaphar lays down a gauntlet pretty early in his writing and directing debut, “Exhibiting Forgiveness,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Saturday. André Holland plays Tarrell Rodin, a celebrated artist whose work looks just like Titus Kaphar’s (because Kaphar provided the paintings). He dismisses a recent critical rave because, positivity be damned, the critic didn’t understand what they were talking about. To Tarrell, it doesn’t matter what a critic likes if they don’t like it the right way.
“Exhibiting Forgiveness” is an impressive first feature, boldly conceived and emotionally fraught, with masterful performances and powerful works of art woven into the narrative. It’s a film that confronts the multigenerational impact of addiction and abuse, and the way art can be personally transformative and therapeutic, even though the artist may struggle to communicate directly with those around them. If I’m “wrong” about that, I’m sorry, but that’s still a powerful takeaway.
Rodin lives in a big house with his wife, Aisha (Andra Day, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday) and their son, Jermaine (Daniel Berrier). It’s been a rough time for Tarrell, waking up in the middle of the night in mid-panic attack, trying to work out his feelings in the studio he shares with Aisha, a talented singer-songwriter. Despite their different disciplines they have a way to collaborate: Aisha sings a new song and Tarrell suggests adding the color yellow, which Aisha — and cinematographer Lachlan Milne (“Minari”) — divinely provides.
Tarrell has been trying to get his mother, Joyce (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), to move out of her old house and in with his family, but when they arrive she hasn’t packed. She’s also brought Tarrell’s estranged father, La’Ron (John Earl Jelks, “New Amsterdam”) back into the Tarrell’s life against his will. Tarrell and his mother were both abused by La’Ron, a former crack addict. Tarrell had every intention of introducing his father to Aisha for the first time at La’Ron’s funeral.
The message that “Exhibiting Forgiveness” iterates, over and over again, is that if you can’t forgive someone else you cannot be forgiven. And, frankly, Tarrell can be forgiven for rejecting that. La’Ron may be eager to reconnect, and even willing to explain how he became the disappointment he is, but he never explicitly asks for forgiveness. It’s only expected that Tarrell provide it, despite all the suffering La’Ron has caused. Joyce seems to have forgiven him, many times over, after many shocking betrayals. She has a light in her than Tarrell cannot understand, let alone find in himself.
And what, exactly, does Tarrell need to be forgiven for anyway? To hear Titus Kaphar’s film tell it, his understandable failure to forgive is a character flaw in itself. Or, at least, it’s an infected wound that desperately needs lancing. Holland dives head first into a role of such unusual depth and complexity it’s almost hard to process “Exhibiting Forgiveness” on a performance level. Holland, Jelks, and Ellis-Taylor are operating on astounding levels, in material that challenges and rewards, even if it cannot possibly satisfy.
Kaphar’s paintings aren’t a backdrop, and even when they are, they’re literally pushed into frame by the ghost of Tarrell’s past. In lieu of some perhaps much-needed therapy, Tarrell communicates with and through his artwork. Perhaps that’s why he’s so offended when people don’t “get” it, critics or buyers alike. He’s putting everything into those paintings. To misunderstand his work is to deny his feelings, his thoughts, his reality. He can’t even feel nostalgia; when he visits a public swimming pool from his childhood, now empty and grown over, all he sees are the chips of paint that adorn it.
“Exhibiting Forgiveness” defies certain structural conventions, interrupting narrative flows for extended dramatic moments, just like the unexpected re-introduction of La’Ron has disrupted a life Tarrell’s spent trying to move forward. Looking back is hard, it’s disruptive, it takes time. In those scenes Ellis-Taylor and Jelks provide majestic parallels to Holland’s haunted, even frightened performance. Tarrell cannot fathom coming to terms with the past they share. It disturbs him to even consider it.
Kaphar brings something special, narratively raw, but thematically refined to his first feature. It’s painful and it doesn’t necessarily heal, but it’s a full experience, exceptional in its craft, with performances that cannot be dismissed or be forgotten.
“Exhibiting Forgiveness” is a sales title at Sundance.
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