Chicago’s South and West sides are notorious for their eye-popping murder rates. Attempting to derive the penalty of crime irking their neighborhoods, two men—one atoning for having perpetrated a ridiculous shooting as a youth—create community-based self-help programs to offer mentorship and healing to adolescent men likely to be both offerings and perpetrators of gun violence. Seeking perception rather than resolution, All These Sons (2021) witnesses these young men doing the hard work to measure their grounds and doubts, often revealing the deep-seated wound that serves the circles of violence that leave all individuals maligned. The film follows program members Shamont, Zay, Charles as they strive to tame their past demons and, with the supervision of their guides, face a hopeful future.
The film comes with lofty expectations. This is inevitable, because the last time documentarian Bing Liu took command, Minding The Gap (2018) was the result. The debut Sundance documentary was a masterpiece on coming-of-age, acceptance, and sports. Its semi-autobiographical nature made it all the more personal, insightful, funny, and affectionate. The editing by Joshua Altman was terrific and at times moving. The two instant masters collaborate for this important directorial work.
SIMILAR TO ALL THESE SONS (2021): 2018: GROWING UP SKATEBOARDING – SKATE KITCHEN, MID90S AND MINDING THE GAP
Important because, as much as the gun violence in Chicago has been handled by various documentaries, nearly none of them have this much focus on rays of hope and human sensitivity of ex-criminals. It doesn’t follow an investigative exemplar to unfairly empathize with police. If you’re expecting that, you’ll be disappointed. It’s hopeful and humanist but at the same time, it unwaveringly questions the unwavering police cruelty and probes the witch-hunting that Chicago policemen do instead of any actual investigation.
A life of hardships is synonymous with intensive labor. However, where there is love, there is light. The three protagonists of the film are ably shown as humans dealing with love. They are men with women to go home for and children to play with. It never cancels their problematic doings but progressively throws light on the healing of their traumatic experiences. Through a mature running time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, it is never dismissive of anything that is suggested. This is something to smile about since this is a quality that Minding The Gap very much possessed, and perhaps an indication that Liu is keeping his texture as an auteur-in-making.
However, one simply can’t keep away the shadow of the supremely excellent first feature from the second. Which does a lot of harm to the impact of All These Sons as a film. The delivery severely lacks restraint over the material.
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And yet, it does not feel fluid enough. The program and its motives could have been explored with a lot more sharpness. A distant observation is far too much visible in the film, which is another of its flaws. At times, it feels like the themes carry so much pain and emotional heaviness that they keep the originality of filmmakers from soaring on their own. The three protagonists are layered and excellently peeled off. But they are not half as memorable as the three diverse skating friends living in American suburbs.
The editing never feels exploitative and is masterly enough, but one can’t say the same about the cinematography. The lighting is warm and carries the gravitas of the film’s escalating stakes, but it doesn’t have the magic and charm we expect from such thoroughly rooted films about neighborhoods and their lived-in experiences. The efficiency of Liu’s storytelling more than makes up for it though.
The ending was satisfactory. Even with all the flaws and the obviousness of its style, All These Sons aren’t lacking in substance. Not really. As a fact, it is better than the best films of most documentarians. But occasionally, it feels broken and lacks the bite of its predecessor. Let’s say, it doesn’t mind the gaps.