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Movie review: ‘Burden’ can’t carry the weight of its story

Al Alexander
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Daily Comet

No one can fault the heart-and-soul commitment of actor-turned-filmmaker Andrew Heckler in creating “Burden,” his semi-true tale about love conquering hate. But a story, even as good as this one, can’t sustain on what amounts to amateur hour for the first-time writer-director.

There’s a reason “Burden” sat on a dusty shelf in the two-plus years since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival - and it ain’t the fault of a dynamite cast that includes Oscar-winners Forest Whitaker and Tom Wilkinson along with top-flight character actors in Garrett Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough and Tess Harper. Heck, it even lands R&B legend Usher in a rare dramatic role. No, the culprit is Heckler. It’s a toss-up over what’s worse: his writing or directing.

If forced to choose, I’d go with the former. The guy has never met a Southern cliché he couldn’t use and there’s clear evidence of a tin ear when scribbling down dialogue as scintillating as “Don’t go writin’ no checks you can’t cash.” In that vein, don’t go writin’ no screenplays you can’t make compelling. And, honestly, this one should have written itself - and no doubt would have been more coherent had it.

The basic premise is this: Hunky Ku Klux Klan member meets foul-mouthed, mini-skirted single mom who teaches him tolerance to the degree he quits burning crosses, gets disowned by the white trash of not-so-hospitable Lauren, South Carolina, and takes refuge in the basement of the local black preacher man. Sounds far-fetched, but it all really happened, according to Courtney Hargrave’s source novel. The twist is that the year wasn’t 1966, but 1996, when the town of Lauren still possessed all the characteristics of a Jim Crow burg where whites are dumb and privileged and blacks are smart and spat, peed and beat upon.

It’s in this cesspool of backwardness that Hedlund’s bobble-headed Mike Burden (one-half of the movie’s double-entendre title) and his mentor, local Grand Wizard Tom Griffin (Wilkinson), think they’re being cute in converting the local movie house, the Echo, into the (I kid you not) Redneck KKK Museum, an emporium of racial animus and cute little gifts, like Klan hoods, Confederate flags, and NASCAR T-shirts. No doubt you’ll also find a couple of Skynyrd CDs, one of which, natch, pops up on the soundtrack, which oddly also includes two Eddie Vedder uke tunes. Soooo Southern, right?

But I digress. Turns out the town’s newest tourist attraction is directly across from the local Baptist Church ministered by MLK-like peacenik pastor, the Rev. David Kennedy (Whitaker). He and his black parishioners are not pleased, which is putting it lightly. But the reverend, whose family has been grievously harmed by racial hatred before, manages to keep all in line with his passive-aggressive, non-violent form of protest. Or, at least he attempts to. The youngins have different ideas, although Heckler doesn’t seem all that interested in them, or anything beyond Mike’s new romance with Riseborough’s Judy Harbeson, a sexy single mom (in a fashionable Louis XIV wig) with an 8-year-old miraculously untouched by the town’s overt racism. We know this because he has a little black friend. Aw!

One trip to the local stock-car track and the boy is instantly smitten with Mike, who is so besotted by the child’s innocence he begins to question his long streak of systemic racism. It’s as dull as it sounds and only picks up when Mike publicly denounces Tom and ends up the hunted instead of the hunter. That’s when the reverend takes Mike and the Harbesons into his home, despite much protest from the black community. Get it? The blacks are intolerant, too. It’s that simple.

In fact, the entire enterprise is simple beyond belief. It’s like an “Afterschool Special” for fifth-graders, albeit with a chaste sex scene or two. Bottom line: Everything works out just as you’d expect, and despite a generous 115-minute runtime, the characters remain as thin at the end as they did at the start. You struggle to care anything about them while fighting the urge to laugh at their long streak of naiveté.

It pretty much defeats all the good Heckler is sincerely trying to accomplish. He had a solid story, one we could really use given these times of Putin-inspired division in our nation. But when it comes to well-meaning intentions, “Burden” doesn’t take the load off as much as it fails to carry the weight.

Al Alexander may be reached at alexandercritica@aol.com.

“Burden”

Cast includes Garrett Hedlund, Tom Wilkinson, Forest Whitaker and Andrea Riseborough.

(R for disturbing, violent content, and language throughout including racial epithets.)

Grade: C