Rex Reed has been railing against young filmmakers of late for being disinterested in the “pleasant art of storytelling,” but that criticism misses the forest for the trees. Traditional narrative is not under threat, but its formal limitations often prove constraining to novice directors seeking a more dynamic means for packaging content. Lila & Eve, from veteran genre director Charles Stone III, is a perfect film to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of convention versus experimentation, since its tangible but modest pleasures could be enlivened by a gutsier template. Its sensibilities are geared toward revelation through narrative catharsis, as Lila (Viola Davis) joins a Mothers of Angels group in Atlanta to deal with the recent murder of her son, Stephon (Aml Ameen), before deciding to team up with Eve (Jennifer Lopez), also a grieving mother, to hunt down those responsible for her son’s death.
By typical standards, the film is effective. Stone III and screenwriter Pat Gilfillan stage Lila’s dilemmas compassionately, where the bonds of women in psychological duress are sustained through mutual empathy, resulting in a sisterhood that’s taken seriously by the filmmakers and not simply proffered for base-level schmaltz. The film arrives at this point through its clear-headed sense of maternal strife, which is causally explained over a number of successive encounters, namely Lila and Eve’s ventures out into the Atlanta streets, handgun in tow, searching for answers. What arises as a problem, however, is the film’s mundane sense of pulp vengeance, which more or less unfolds as stark realism, with dim lighting, ambient noises, and caustic gunfire standing in for a more dynamic presentation, which seems especially inappropriate and misleading once a third-act twist reveals that more of the events have been exclusively from Lila’s perspective than initially thought.
While said twist threatens to reduce the proceedings to a rote cautionary tale, it’s a secondary concern to the film’s core problem of simplifying trauma, where pill-popping and not wearing makeup are meant to constitute Lila’s rock-bottom. There are instances of keen thematic shorthand throughout. When Lila goes to see Detective Holliston (Shea Whigham) about her son’s case, she glimpses a billboard for a “task force” trying to solve the murder of a young white local, and once Holliston finally arrives in the waiting room to greet Lila, he offers: “Who are you again?” The filmmakers play these quick-hitter moments economically, expressing a world of infrastructural bias within a few moments. There’s some effective language play as well. After remarking how Tina Turner finally stood up to her husband, Eve grabs a gun and says, “I’m gonna get my Tina on.” The line doubles as a pun on Eve’s ethnicity, blending a well-known pop narrative of feminine vengeance with an embrace of stereotypical Latina ferocity.
Lila & Eve ultimately succeeds as a convincing social plea, but fails as compelling cinema. The film is further hampered by Lila and Eve’s decision for violence, which subsequently results in the murder of nearly half a dozen men. Instead of deliberating the ethics of their decisions, the filmmakers milk these set pieces for their generic intensity, as nearly all shootings take place once the threatened party tries to draw a weapon. Throughout these exchanges, revelations of exposition abound, as the pair uncovers the truth behind Stephon’s murder, with one assailant even suggesting that Lila is ultimately to blame for her own son’s death. While these are potentially formidable developments, Lila & Eve is finally deflated by its reticence to abandon convention, though its filmmakers prove adept at navigating the meager terrain without flashing any greater, more daringly formal or thematic pursuits.