The public deals with several incredibly weighty subjects. Mental illness, homelessness, lack of homeless shelters, the closing of libraries and the disconnect between public officials and the public. Regrettably, its delivery of these messages feels artificial, often strained. Writer/director Emilio Estevez (The Breakfast Club, Young Guns), who I expected to and was hoping would have a home run with this film, seems as unsure of himself behind the camera as he does in front of the camera. What he wants to say is necessary to hear and acknowledge and it’s important for us to consider but the script often feels stiff and farfetched as if it were Estevez himself who was legitimately concerned about how it would be perceived.
Stuart Goodson (Estevez) manages a branch of the Public Library in Cincinnati. He loves his job, loves the people who meander in the doors and loves books. Books are distinct and something tangible. When he needed something real, they helped him get sober. He tends to them the best he can when they’re defaced, which lately, are damaged with symbols of hate.
At the beginning of the narrative, we meet some of the homeless who like to come in not just to read, but to have somewhere to go, to feel a sense of community and to stay warm. As the shelters fill, they’re faced with fewer choices of where to stay in extreme weather. Estevez knows it’s important to show the library patrons in the best light possible, so we’re shown how kind-hearted and amusing they are, even mocking the situation in which they find themselves. After meeting the pompous public officials who want to oust them from their temporary home for the night, Christian Slater and Alec Baldwin, you’re on the side of Goodson’s customers even more.
On this particular day, nightfall hits and the homeless decide they’re not leaving. Some are veterans and feel the city owes them a place to sleep for the night. As people did on Wall Street, they choose to ‘Occupy’ the library. Under pressure from a pending lawsuit as it is, Goodson does his best to get them to leave, but the seventy or so people who simply want a roof over their heads and some heat for the night, aren’t going anywhere. When the story makes it to the city’s politicians and then to the news, the story gets blown up and suddenly… it’s a hostage situation?? As wannabe mayor Josh Davis (Slater) pushes the plot that Goodson is the bad guy, the very plot of the movie becomes somewhat ludicrous, to say the least.
After an hour into this two-hour movie, you’re not so much concerned for Goodson, even though Estevez is pushing you to, as you are the overall subject of the piece. The discord within the storyline of the homeless taking over a public library to stay warm is lost in filling our heads with humdrum backstories and the set-up for a trite love story that doesn’t fit. Don’t even get me started with how the homeless is characterized in this fictional account of who they are. We’re supposed to see them as the trampled and crushed… but why do they have to be depicted as psychotic, as well? That’s where this powerful theme is lost. Estevez wants to show you that humans can do better. Perhaps he should have led with that himself.
*Check local listing for a theatre near you where you can view this film.