Film Review: Flesh and Blood

Mark Webber’s fourth film as a writer-director freely blends narrative and documentary elements into a low-key study of the seemingly endless cycles of abuse and addiction.
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Flesh and Blood, the fourth feature from actor-turned-filmmaker Mark Webber, draws more explicitly upon Webber’s own experiences and family history than any of his previous films. Flesh and Blood freely blends narrative and documentary elements: Playing an ostensibly fictionalized version of himself, Webber stars as a recently paroled convict who returns to his economically blighted North Philadelphia neighborhood, hoping to pick his life back up where he left off several years earlier.

The attempt mostly involves resuming a turbulent relationship with his activist mother, Cheri (Cheri Onkala), and trying to get to know his self-professed nerd half-brother, Guillermo (Guillermo Santos), who’s recently been diagnosed with Asperger’s. Adding to the project’s sheen of verisimilitude, Webber’s real-life mother and brother play themselves.

The film’s first act gives Webber plenty of room to ruminate on the prison experience. Whether trying to reconnect with friends or sitting in on a 12-step group-therapy session, Webber sensibly keeps the dialogue naturalistic, except perhaps for the scene where Guillermo attempts to explain Plato’s allegory of the cave to his brother over pizza slices.

It’s a fairly ostentatious philosophical flourish that’s clearly meant to stand not only for the blinkered human condition in general but, more specifically in Mark’s case, for the former inmate’s confrontation with the outside world. But Webber wisely undercuts the moment’s potential for pretentiousness by having Guillermo’s anecdote interrupted by one of Mark’s erstwhile associates.

Then there’s an almost entirely silent sequence where Webber wanders the eerily empty city streets. The final shot shows him sitting under a streetlight, head in hands, framed between the bars of a porch rail: a canny visual correlative to his sense of isolation and apartness.

At one point, Cheri abruptly announces that she’ll be running for Vice President on the Green Party ticket. This effectively reveals the film to be a period piece set during the run-up to the 2012 election. You might think that Webber would make greater hay out of the opportunities provided by this turn of events. But, apart from a few interspersed news clips, nothing ever really comes from this development. For whatever it’s worth, Webber’s focus steadfastly remains on the domestic drama throughout.

Flesh and Blood starts to call attention to its own connection with reality when Mark gives Guillermo a camcorder. The film thereafter incorporates footage Guillermo shoots for a prospective documentary baldly entitled My Life, seamlessly cutting back and forth between DP Patrice Lucien Cochet’s 2.35:1 images and the boxier DV frame. Talking-head interviews with subjects looking directly into Guillermo’s camera parallel other scenes, like the aforementioned one in the therapy session, that are staged as drama.

Some of the most affecting material comes from a matched pair of meetings: Mark and Guillermo each have the chance to confront their fathers, trying to come to grips with their troubled patrimonies. Aptly enough, both of them share their fathers’ name, as though to emphasize the role of heredity in these self-perpetuating cycles of abuse and addiction.

These scenes also supply the film’s dramatic payoff. As a work of fiction, Flesh and Blood delivers only the slightest of narrative arcs. But to the extent that the film fulfills its documentary function, it gives us the all-too-rare opportunity to hear testimony from the sort of people who are ordinarily held at arm’s length by more mainstream American cinema. And that is the film’s greatest asset.

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