Sometimes I start out watching a movie with the feeling that I'm just not going to warm up to it at all. But in the case of a film such as SMOKE FILLED LUNGS (2016), that feeling does a gradual one-eighty when the movie turns out to be way more than I expected.
Not that it's a life-changing epic or anything, but retired Navy Seal Jason Cabell's story (he also starred and co-directed with Asif Akbar) of a timid, bullied high school kid on a road trip with his uncle, a paraplegic war veteran hopelessly addicted to drugs, slowly but surely works its way under the skin and into the bloodstream.
Orlando Brown (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, "That's So Raven") plays Michael, one of the oldest-looking high school kids in recent movie memory, whose tendency to get bullied prompts his caring war-widow mom Charisse (Stacy Arnell, MENACE II SOCIETY) to urge the boy's uncle Eddie (Cabell) to take him to visit their granddad in a rest home many miles away so that the fatherless teen can have some valuable "man time" along the way.
It's one of those movie-type road trips that turns into a journey of personal discovery and intimate revelation as the callow youth and the embittered physical and emotional casualty of war that is his uncle Eddie hash out their differences in the close quarters of Eddie's van during long hours on the road.
What seems pretty boring at first turns out to be a sort of sun-blanched realism, since such trips really are boring and monotonous. The early conversation seems superficial, mainly just Eddie giving the kid a hard time for not having any goals (besides a desire to play baseball) or awareness of his racial and family heritage.
Various vignettes, such as their violent run-in with a desperate homeless man at a gas station, bring them closer together. But it isn't until they finally get to Granddad's rest home that the old man (Frankie Faison, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, HANNIBAL) really begins to invest the film with the emotional resonance that will stay with it and us till the end.
Faison is fine in the role, gently drawing us into the old man's personal stories of World War II and the civil rights era as a montage of moving historical photos unobtrusively augments his narrative.
He also helps the boy understand what the irascible Eddie suffers on a daily basis, which in turn gives the viewer new insight into the lives of such damaged veterans. What might have been preachy in other hands really comes off as one generation thoughtfully passing along its wisdom and experience to the next.
After that, the newly-enlightened Michael attempts to understand and help his extremely troubled, drug-dependent uncle in ways which, fortunately for us, generate some fairly powerful drama.
With sincere, low-key performances and a script that never wavers, SMOKE FILLED LUNGS is a thoughtful, well-handled, and moving story right up to its pitch-perfect ending.
Runtime: 90 mins
Sound: 5.1 Surround
Cast & Crew
Directed by: Jason Cabell and Asif Akbar
Starring: Jason Cabell, Frankie Faison, Orlando Brown, Orson Chaplin, Sasha Mitchell and Stacy Arnell