Mark Weber’s Explicit Ills has a tenderness that belies its fiery left-leaning political views about urban poverty and social injustice. Actor-turned-director Weber’s directorial debut attempts a Killer of Sheep-ish snapshot of crumbling inner-city Philadelphia, leisurely weaving together stories of the area’s inhabitants with a pensive gracefulness aided in large part by incandescent cinematography (courtesy of Patrice Lucien Cochet) that captures the environment’s decay while affectionately embracing its struggling-to-subsist protagonists. Weber’s tale involves, among others, an artist (Lou Taylor Pucci) working for a marijuana delivery service and the painter with whom he falls into volatile druggie love, a working-class mother (Rosario Dawson) trying to provide for her asthmatic son (Francisco Burgos), a couple (Roots singer Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Naomie Harris) in the final stages of starting up an organic food store, and an aspiring actor (Paul Dano) who moonlights as a birthday party ninja and plays chess with Burgos’s kid. These neighbors’ plights revolve around issues of drugs, healthcare, education, and male-female relationships, topics that Weber initially allows to unaffectedly surface through everyday incidents.
Moodily scored and respectfully attentive of its milieu and personalities, Explicit Ills has a touch of the casual poeticism found in executive-producer Jim Jarmusch’s early indies, though Weber’s activist motives eventually lead the plot—which builds to a climactic community-wide protest march in favor of equal human rights for those living day-to-day and hand-to-mouth—down more treacherous terrain. For the most part, Weber carries out his political agenda not by preaching but by empathetically humanizing his marginalized characters. After assuredly establishing his warm-hearted tone, however, the writer-director slowly but surely loses his grip on the material, first only in minor ways—namely, the preciously angelic white glow that encases the sweet, socially aware Burgos—and then, later, via a cheaply manipulative third-act tragedy that clashes with the prior proceedings’ modesty and reveals the didactic sermon lurking beneath the film’s lyrical-realism façade.