By Malcolm Woodard | Shadow and Act July 30, 2013 at 7:16PM
On its surface, and in its most basic form, Neo Ned might sound like a Monsters Ball retread - a young black single mother gets romantically involved with a racist white man. But will digging further reveal more?
The titular Ned (played by Jeremy Renner) is laden with enough emotional baggage to totally destroy any human soul. As a child, he saw his racist, irresponsible father incarcerated indefinitely; he's shopped from one foster home to the next, including one suicidal family, who almost kill him. Ned never quite had a real family, and like most young adults with his history and desires, he clings to any group that wants and accepts him - even if it's made up of neo-Nazi skinheads who commit race-crimes, as is the case in Neo Ned.
We've heard of the hooker with the heart of gold; In Ned's case, switch "hooker" with "skinhead." But he's also quite nutty, unpredictable, and prone to irrational behavior, although balanced with moments of calm, reason, and even love, encouraging, but not necessarily demanding that you empathize with his plight. But for the story to work, the audience has to. Although, oddly, despite his mercurial nature, his actions are largely predictable, if only because we've seen this character make-up before; he's cliched. And that makes the story less of a mystery.
Even when he starts to fall for Gabrielle Union's character (Rachael), in that kind of innocent, pubescent way that I think we can all recall (though both of them are adults), we aren't surprised. For her part, Union mostly holds her own; although, having been relegated to mostly rom-com fluff leading up to this, she wasn't always entirely believable here, and there were moments when I felt like I could actually see her working the lines, as opposed to embodying, and disappearing into the character. But the overall attempt was a decent one, and it's good that she took on a role unlike anything she'd ever previously played.
Her character is also loaded with oodles of emotional baggage; specifically, she was molested as a young girl, by a family portrait photographer - a white man, by the way. She has a daughter of her own, who's being taken care of by her grandmother, as Rachael heals in a facility for the emotionally unstable - which is where she first meets Ned. And, by the way, she believes that she's the reincarnation of Hitler, and his soul lives within her; she frequently spouts out German prose, much to the delight of Ned - a somewhat indoctrinated neo-Nazi himself.
But no one is really who they say or believe that they are, as each is essentially hiding behind a facade as a defense mechanism. As the layers covering both are gradually pulled back, we see that underneath each patina of shit, lie 2 vulnerable, unhappy, lonely people, who really just want what they've never really had for much of their lives - to belong to a stable unit - and they find that in each other, however uncertain it is.
It's Jeremy Renner's/Ned's show all the way - obviously, since his name is in the title of the film; and Union's character is there to serve his. It's about his transformation, his growth, and she's the pivot. Even though their meeting at the facility was purely coincidental, it did seem planned; as if everyone else was in on the joke, except Ned, in a Truman Show-esque way.
In the end, Ned demonstrates his love for Rachael, in an act of altruism, with fatal consequences. Childhood demons are revisited and eliminated - literally.
This film was made 9 years ago, long before Jeremy Renner's Oscar-nominated role in The Hurt Locker, and his performance in Neo Ned was sound. I believed him as this emotionally unstable young man, searching for some stability. Union showed that she can pull off something more challenging than the usual, if given the opportunity to do so; granted, as I said, she wasn't consistent in her performance.
It's a scrappy little film; atmospheric, with its mostly dark, saturated colors, and mood music. And there are some genuinely funny, quirky moments delivered by Renner in that offbeat, "indie-drama" way.
Almost any film made after 1975 that takes place mostly in a mental institution will likely be compared to Milos Forman's multiple award-winning One Flew Over The Cuckoo's nest. But Neo Ned isn't at all trying to be that film, thankfully. Given such a bizarre premise, director Van Fischer really could have dug deeper and created something much more exhilarating and thought-provoking with Neo Ned. But this was a respectable start.
Overall, a decent flick, even though predictable and cliched; but it had enough to keep me engaged for much of its 97 minute running time.
I'd say see it once, but no rush.