A spate of youth-oriented movies has flooded cinemas this year. Films such as Cruel Intentions, 200 Cigarettes and Go all weave sophisticated stories around teens and twenty-somethings and their involvement with drugs, sex and love. Award-winning writer and director Barry Levinson delivers his new film, Liberty Heights, along the same vein – but with a slight twist.
Dealing predominantly with characters between the ages of 18 and 21, he takes us back nearly 50 years to 1954 Baltimore, where he confronts the less-frivolous issues of bigotry and anti-Semitism.
Liberty Heights is the former Jewish section of Baltimore where Levinson grew up. The film is the fourth in a series of semi-autobiographical movies he’s made that have come to be known as “the Baltimore films.” As he did with his directing debut, Diner, and again with Tin Men and Avalon, the 56-year-old filmmaker has left his home in Los Angeles to depict his family and childhood friends for the stories and characters portrayed in his latest creation.
The movie revolves around a Jewish family consisting of father Nate (Joe Mantegna of Woody Allen’s Celebrity), college student Van (Adrien Brody of The Thin Red Line) and 17-year-old Ben (Ben Foster, currently seen in the TV series, Freaks and Geeks).
Three parallel story lines knit the movie together: Ben falls in love with a black girl at school and finds everyone questioning his motives; Van and his friends try to cross over into the WASP “promised land” and find out it’s not as glamorous
and cool as they thought it would be; Nate and his partners learn the ironic lesson that while the law ignores gambling, it frowns on blacks and whites doing business together.
Unlike Good Morning, Vietnam, Bugsy, Rain Man (which won Levinson an Academy Award) and Wag the Dog, the Baltimore films are not star-driven productions that will gross hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead, one report describes them as “heartwarming, character-driven, slice-of-life movies that glory in how ordinary people fit into extraordinary times.”
With four “Baltimore films” now under his belt, let’s hope, for his audience’s sake, that Levinson still has a slew of hometown stories left to tell.
– Jane Doucet