The best film of the week is Spoken Word, a small, unpretentious and heartfelt family drama directed by the esteemed filmmaker Victor Nunez, who guided Peter Fonda to such glory in Ulee’s Gold (1997). This time he introduces Kuno Becker, a charismatic actor from Mexico City with extensive credits in his native country but who is relatively unknown in the U.S., as a “spoken word” artist named Cruz Montoya. After a friend blows his brains out on his living room floor, Cruz escapes a hardscrabble world of poverty and violence in New Mexico, starts a new life in San Francisco and becomes a popular rap artist, a renowned published poet and a teacher of poetry to underprivileged would-be writers, in whom he sees fragments of himself at a younger age. When his sister-in-law calls with the bad news that is father is dying of pancreatic cancer, Cruz reluctantly returns home to Santa Fe and discovers that the old dead-end life he left behind is still there, with arms wide open, ready to suck him back into darkness and dead-end despair.
Mr. Nunez is a sensitive director with currents of empathy for his characters and a talent for extracting earnest ardor from the smallest of details.
The distinguished Panama-born singer-actor-writer Ruben Blades gives an exceptionally in-depth performance as the estranged father, but there is also a brother who resents him for leaving home, as well as the same old bad influences, the same booze and drugs that could have a catastrophic effect on the bipolar disorder he fights daily to overcome. To pass the time, he makes the mistake of resuming his old job-running a club that is a haven for wayward kids, prostitutes and addicts. Neglecting his poetry, the students back home who depend on him and the loyal girlfriend who has devoted herself to keeping him healthy, he goes off his meds and spirals downhill. Between his attempts at macho bonding with his father and picking up the pieces of a life that seems to be coming apart fast, Cruz emerges from the emotional chaos, in this complex portrait of a troubled horse in midstream. Mr. Nunez is a sensitive director with currents of empathy for his characters and a talent for extracting earnest ardor from the smallest of details. Thanks to a subtle, human script by William T. Conway and Joe Ray Sandoval that respects the value of understatement, a sympathetic character study takes shape, enhanced greatly by the magnetism of Mr. Becker, a rare combo of hunky strength and moody lyricism we should all hope to see more of. The movie is about how he learns to show what’s in his heart even when he can’t find the spoken words to express his feelings aloud. Under the careful guidance of Mr. Nunez, Mr. Becker does both, in ways that reminded me of a Hispanic James Dean.
Running time 116 minutes
Written by William T. Conway and Joe Ray Sandoval
Directed by Victor Nunez
Starring Kuno Becker, Ruben Blades
3 Eyeballs out of 4