Debbie Tucker Green’s feature film debut, "Second Coming," has a premise that, religious or not, will probably pique your interest. That it’s set in present day London and that the family at the centre of the story is black, was another reason for me to get excited. Indeed, it was a delight to see a black family – a NORMAL – black family, portrayed on screen. No drugs, no knives, no guns… No drama. And therein lies the problem.
Jax, played admirably by Nadine Marshall, has a dilemma. A dilemma the proportions of which you don’t really get too many clues about. Her husband, Mark, played by Idris Elba, is as perfect a husband as any woman could want. Her son, JJ (Kai Francis-Lewis) is a sweet-natured, sensitive, and intuitive child. A better realistic model of a black family you couldn’t find. However, all is not well in paradise, or indeed on earth, especially not in this particular household. Jax is in turmoil, albeit mostly internalised, leaving her husband frustrated, and her friends and family of origin knowing that something’s amiss, but waiting for her to announce her news.
Green is a successful and much lauded playwright. It wasn’t, however, until after I saw the film that I realised I’d actually seen one of her plays, "Nut," which also starred Marshall and co-starred Sharlene Whyte, who, in "Second Coming" plays Bernie, Jax’s exasperated best friend, godmother to her son, and confidant. Not one to spoon-feed her audiences, Green throws in titbits of information which seem bizarrely out of context and either have you intrigued as you try to piece things together or leave you wanting the story to end as you’ve long since given up on it. I liked the play I saw and, personally, I think I’d have liked Second Coming a whole lot better on stage.
Green’s strength, I think, is in getting performances out of her actors. Elba was neither Stringer Bell nor Luther. Marshall was steadfastly stoic and exasperating in turn. However, between beautiful shots and bizarre dream/vision scenes, but mostly regular kitchen sink domestic drama with metronomic pacing and little in the way of visual cues as to what the film is actually about, for things to warm up some 40 minutes in, and then having the central premise casually delivered within the last 15 to 20 minutes of the film really didn’t feel like enough of a payoff. Not for a feature film, anyway. A short, yes. TV, maybe. But a feature length film…? I abhor the Hollywood style of being spoon fed, but Green goes in totally the opposite direction and leaves you grasping for a few nuggets of information.
I like vague; I like leaving a film screening and theorising about character motivations, wondering about ambiguous endings, listening to other various interpretations of what may or may not have happened. But a good 40 minutes of uncertainty followed by an ending that neither addresses nor resolves anything, just left me asking what, exactly (or, hey, even vaguely), happened. Apart from the initial warm and fuzzy feeling of seeing a black family whose life was about to be impacted in a profound way, and waiting for that to unfold, the casually inserted soundtrack to this family’s life was, quite literally, music to my ears. And there’s every possibility that, perhaps, it was the rarely seen familiarity of black British family life on screen that clouded my vision.
I would probably watch the film again, if only to see if there were nuances which I didn’t pick up on, nuances which I may have paid more attention to if it were a foreign language film where I would have prepared myself to work to find and decipher meaning. Ultimately, though, "Second Coming" is very much a festival film (or stage play, or short film, or experimental TV film) with an amazing premise, brilliant cast, but which gives nothing away.
"Second Coming" opens today, June 5th, in UK theaters, via Film4. No USA dates yet.
Film4 has debuted a first trailer: