Films portraying life after prison can be enlightening if the screenwriter and director are able to establish personal growth or self-awareness within the ex-convict character at the center of their story. Some great examples in the last 30 years have been films like Sling Blade, American History X, I’ve Loved You So Long and, most recently, Wild Rose from early this past summer.
Allowing change to happen gives audiences the ability to empathize with a character’s past failures or appreciate their attempt to take a step forward and reinvent themselves. It doesn’t always end well, of course, but without a nuanced approach to this type of narrative, a filmmaker might find himself or herself spinning their wheels.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens in writer-director Adel L. Morales’ film Release, a movie featuring such a consistently unlikeable protagonist, it’s unimaginable how the recent New York University film graduate thought he could elicit anything but contempt and, ultimately, indifference from viewers. Morales digs himself into a bigger hole by choosing to write a story about such a taboo topic, once he commits to it, there is nowhere for him to go. We won’t beat around the bush since it’s so obvious where Release is headed 20 minutes after it starts. At its core, it’s about an incestuous relationship between a man and his estranged daughter.
Let’s make this clear: we’re not criticizing Morales for including incest in his script, no matter how vile most people would deem the practice to be if committed in real life. Like any director, he can make a movie about whatever he wants. What we will critique, however, is the apathetic way in which he tells the story.
Release follows Ricky “Maverick” Santana (Ian Paola), a Bronx native who returns home after spending 21 years behind bars for ending up at “some party with pounds of cocaine and a dead woman,” as his ex-girlfriend vaguely mentions late in the movie. Maverick moves back to the borough with his daughter Ellie (Priscilla Star Diaz), ailing mother, sister and grandson. He lands a gig at a sports apparel store with help from a family friend and seems to want to build a relationship with Ellie, who he has just met for the first time. That is, of course, until he decides to bed her instead. Cue the handful of laughable clichés centered on the idea that “the heart wants what the heart wants.”
Morales, who made Release for his thesis project at NYU, needs moviegoers to believe Maverick is suffering from PTSD because of his incarceration, but does a poor job in showing anything of substance that would prove he is emotionally unstable (besides the fact he has sex with his kid). Yes, there are a few flashbacks where we get to see Maverick in prison, but those scenes are over-stylized, dreamlike sequences that say absolutely nothing about the trauma he might have experienced while locked up.
Maverick went into the prison system a volatile man and he came out one as well. What Morales fails to do is expand on him as a person and delve deeper into his psyche to reveal what drives his anger and fear. Instead, all we get is a static character who can claim the most interesting thing about himself is that he has a daughter with an Oedipus complex. Sadly, that doesn’t benefit Morales’ script. How audiences are supposed to root for a character without a single redeeming quality is anyone’s guess. Hell, even Hannibal Lecter had good table etiquette.
With Release, Morales seems to have made a provocative film for the sole purpose of being provocative. In the end, however, the only thing left behind by the shattered family is the possibility of many awkward Thanksgiving dinners in the future.
Release screened at Urbanworld Film Festival.