Written by: Mark Webber
Starring: Francisco Burgos, Paul Dano, Rosario Dawson, Naomie Harris, Lou Taylor Pucci
Vast disparities and injustices in this country have been widely documented but not many take notice because of the daily routines of life. It creates for it to be kept under wraps until it suddenly gets thwarted in your face and directly impacts you. This force sits right at the center of Explicit Ills and while it has great intentions, the story structure and execution lacks any level of finesse or impression.
Throughout a Philadelphia neighborhood, four different storylines cover various struggles with the central character connecting them all being Babo (Francisco Burgos). As he navigates all of the stories, he experiences the struggles of everyone around him and holds up a mirror to the societal behaviors occurring around him.
The kernel of goodness this film wants to achieve becomes quite clear towards the end of the film in a fairly explicit manner if I could say. You really cannot miss it, but where this film ultimately falls short comes with how it tethers its four storylines together. With such a short feature trying to unpack very large ideas, it became far too ambitious of a project to try and tackle so much with the limited time available. Throughout the narrative, different characters deal with issues surrounding masculinity, poverty, lack of healthcare, and drugs.
In their own bubbles, the ideas expressed in this feature carry resonance, especially in the way it grounds these stories in the lives of people of color in a Philadelphia neighborhood. You have the teenage boy trying to get a girlfriend through the means of acting chauvinistic, as shown by his father, but learns it’s not the way. Sure a straight trajectory of growth for this young character but it never really delves deeper than him being rejected for being misogynistic in his approach, getting rebuked, and then changing his ways. When looking at the grand scheme of the story, it fails to really tie together with the other narratives, especially with how it relates to Babo.
Not many child actors have played a more endearing role than Francisco Burgos as Babo. Almost like Adriano Tardiolo in Happy as Lazarro, this young child represents the goodness found in every single person. He floats through each story unintentionally pointing out the flaws of the particular situations. Seemingly angelic in his actions, nothing points it out more than when he gets bullied and then returns nothing but compassion for the culprit. He’s in the school bathroom where an older kid hits him for having nice sneakers. Young Babo does not seek revenge but instead asks his mother for $100, which she jokingly refuses. Then he heads to a local businessman and asks if he needs any assistance for which Babo could get paid. The young boy gets paid to pick up dog feces, scrounges up the money, purchases the same shoes, and then presents it to the bully. Babo did not take what the bully did as a senseless violent act but rather lashing out for not being able to have the same shoes.
This scene indicates the best this film has to offer with how it demonstrates the saintly presence throughout the storylines. He becomes this for his own mother when she gets frustrated by the lack of support for purchasing an inhaler for the asthma he suffers through. Righteous anger on the mother’s part but met with the young boy in a manner anyone could envy. Babo represents the potential greatness each human has but essentially proves the thesis of the story. Even someone who shows nothing but compassion for others cannot escape the consequences of poverty and lack of healthcare in this world. Every saintly action and connection made with others does not stop when basic human needs do not get met. This eventually causes the uproar the film wants to raise when it reaches its conclusion. A good one but it feels incomplete.
Explicit Ills would have been better served finding more focus in its narrative and expanding more on its stories, as the big moment towards the end feels like there should be more. By the time the credits roll, it causes nothing but confusion considering nearly every storyline feels completely underserved with the brevity of the runtime and dedicated narrative time spent on them. With the best of intentions, this film ultimately feels completely shallow when taking on these vastly important social issues.