The past is never really gone. Memories can invade the mind, feeling as immediate as the present. Moving on from past pain is a constant journey. In Titus Kaphar’s debut feature “Exhibiting Forgiveness,” the struggle of moving on plagues a successful painter trying to live in the present with his family. Tarrell (André Holland) is harried by memories of his abusive father, La’Ron (John Earl Jelks), including nightmares about their time together. He wakes up angry and violent, scaring his wife, Aisha (Andra Day). Despite their beautiful home and darling son, Tarrell can’t seem to settle. His success can’t heal the wounds of his childhood.
This trauma inspires new, deeply personal paintings that beg for their own gallery show. But Tarrell doesn’t know how he feels about the work, and Aisha — who is a singer-songwriter — wants to return to the studio and focus on her own art. “It’s my turn,” she says more than once. They can’t both be busy because they have a son to raise, but the urgency of Tarrell’s trauma-fueled art takes priority. There’s also his mother, Joyce (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), who is supposed to be moving closer to him and his family, leaving his childhood home behind. Like Tarrell, Joyce can’t seem to let go, but she romanticizes their troubled past, refusing to see it for what it was.
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Tarrell’s love for his mother and hatred of his father wrestles within him, and his mother’s Christian-fueled forgiveness only angers him more. So when La’Ron walks back into both their lives, Tarrell can barely stand it. La’Ron is a believer as well and uses faith to ease his guilt. He speaks of being a changed man, a saved man, but can’t help justifying his actions. When Tarrell was young, La’Ron would work him to the bone with little interest in his son’s safety or emotional well-being. He used the money they made together to pay for his crack addiction while his wife was out working, unaware of the pain her son was being put through.
It’s this pain that fuels Tarrell’s new pieces while invading his dreams. Throughout the film, Tarrell sees images of his younger self (played by Ian Foreman), a quiet, thoughtful child with eyes that reveal his inner melancholy. Though clearly repentant, La’Ron is unable to understand the scope of what he’s done. He understands that drugs have ruined his life, but his son’s success makes him believe his abusive parenting methods were necessary. Like his father before him, all he had to give was brutality. But Tarrell knows better. He raises his own son with patience and care, and he soon realizes he must do the same for his inner child, as well. Foreman’s performance as young Tarrell is the soul of the film, showing us a beautiful youth forced to grow up too fast.
Subtle and poetic, Kaphar crafts his story with a soft hand, reminiscent of films like “Moonlight” and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” At times it feels like a therapy session, with the audience bearing witness to an internal emotional journey externalized through the movement of the camera. But like many first features, there’s a sense that we could see and know more about these characters. At times the film feels too contained and restrained in its dialogue. And because Tarrell avoids getting to know his father, the film does the same, leaving us with questions that go unanswered.
“Exhibiting Forgiveness” understands generational trauma a bit more than addiction, painting La’Ron with broad strokes. In the past and present, Jelks plays La’Ron as a shell of a man, unable to connect with anyone or anything on a deeper level. Perhaps this is simply how Tarrell sees him, but it still feels like pieces are missing. It’s hard to picture Joyce falling in love with him back then or putting up with him for any period of time. Ellis-Taylor plays Joyce as a woman in denial, still in love with a charming man who may have never been there to begin with.
As Tarrell, Holland gives a soulful performance, radiating pain and anguish. But there’s love there, too, and the tender moments with his wife and child ground and sustain him. The love between Tarrell and Aisha is palpable, even as frustration grows between them. Day plays Aisha with patience and care, balancing her love for Tarrell with her need for her own artistic fulfillment. There’s a beautiful scene where Tarrell listens to AIsha working on a new song, experiencing the sound like color. Their love is a model of art’s power to bring creative minds together.
“Exhibiting Forgiveness” is about making peace with the past for the sake of the future. It’s easy to pass one’s pain off on someone else, but it’s much harder to own it, carry it, and decide not to continue the cycle.
“Exhibiting Forgiveness” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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