Tuscaloosa

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Tuscaloosa Movie Poster Image
Ambitious drama/romance takes on too much but still works.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 101 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Movie tackles several interesting issues related to race/racism, mental illness, the nature of small towns, though it doesn't really come up with any conclusions or solutions. Families and teens can talk about these issues in context of 1972, how things may or may not have changed today, what positive steps could be taken in the future.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Billy is shown to be kind to many others, including some patients at the asylum and an older man visiting his wife there. He seems open-minded and accepting, but he's still flawed; he's directionless, gets upset when things seem unfair. Black characters are shown becoming angry at the way they're treated and responding with violence. A woman who's described as a "nymphomaniac" is treated as "insane," i.e., worthy of being locked up in an asylum. Small-town conservatives and authority figures are depicted as hateful and racist.

Violence

Bloody cuts on a character's face. A flashback shows screaming and blood in a hospital. News footage depicts social unrest: guns and shooting in Vietnam War, segregation, etc. Character sets car on fire. Fighting, hitting, kicking. Cops beat a character; characters slammed into car hoods. Finger-biting. Arguing. A turtle gets a fishhook stuck in it. Chase scene. Talk about abortion. Other violence and death-related dialogue.

Sex

Kissing. Sexual references.

Language

Uses of "f--k," "motherf----r," "s--t," the "N" word, "sumbitch," "son of a bitch," "ass," "hell," "damn," "goddamn," "cootch," "pecker."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drinking beers/whiskey in social situations. Character drinks moonshine. Casual pot-smoking. Cigarette smoking. A minor character refers to his constant drinking in a comical way.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Tuscaloosa is a romantic drama set in 1972 about a young man (Devon Bostick) who falls in love with an inmate (Natalia Dyer) at the mental hospital where his father works. Violent moments include fighting, heads being slammed against cars, fingers getting bitten, blood, police abuse, news footage with guns and shooting, and several instances of violent dialogue. A young couple kisses frequently, and she says she's pregnant. There's also sex-related dialogue, and language includes uses of "f--k," "s--t," "bitch," and more. Expect frequent social drinking (beer, whiskey, moonshine); one character jokes about his frequent drinking. Characters also smoke cigarettes regularly, and there's some pot smoking. Adapted from W. Glasgow Phillips' 1994 novel, the movie bites off more than it can chew, but it has strong central characters and many interesting themes and is worth seeing for mature viewers.

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What's the story?

In TUSCALOOSA, it's 1972, and college grad Billy (Devon Bostick) works taking care of the grounds at an Alabama mental institution where his father (Tate Donovan) is a psychiatrist. Billy, who's White, occasionally visits his best friend, Nigel (Marchant Davis), a Black man who runs a BBQ stand. They share a bond in that their mothers tried to run away together when they were younger but died in a car crash. At the institution, Billy meets and falls for Virginia (Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things), who's been committed but seems to be nothing more than a free spirit. As Billy and Virginia spend more and more time together, Billy's father threateningly disapproves. Meanwhile, Nigel is becoming progressively angrier and has started staging violent acts of protest against the White establishment. Everything comes to a head the night Billy decides to run away with Virginia.

Is it any good?

Based on a 1994 novel by W. Glasgow Phillips, this drama tries to achieve a novel's depth and breadth, and while many facets feel short-changed, much of it is still powerfully engaging. Music video maker Philip Harder makes his feature writing and directing debut with Tuscaloosa, and it's an ambitious attempt, not only in the tapestry of characters and history, but in the period setting and mood. (The song "O-o-h Child" by the Five Stairsteps has been used in many movies, but it sounds just right here.)

Both Bostick and Dyer are wonderful in their roles. Bostick's Billy is both kind and an outsider, moving to a slightly different rhythm than those around him. And Dyer captures a wonderful pluckiness, playing around with the line between what it means to be "sane" and "crazy." But Davis, while effective as Nigel, gets short-changed. His character is almost exclusively seen during exchanges with Billy, and both his relationship with Billy and his transformation into a militant are frustratingly opaque. Likewise, the flashbacks to the two young mothers, which should have tied so many things together, are both scant and repetitive. But Billy and Virginia keep Tuscaloosa flowing in a touching way as they navigate the extremes of the world and all the anger that goes with them, trying to make their own place.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Tuscaloosa's violence. How did it make you feel? How much of it is rooted in the time period? What's the impact of media violence on kids?

  • Do you understand why the Black characters make the decisions they do? Why do you think the White conservatives are so hateful toward them?

  • What things were different in 1972? What things are similar?

  • How does the movie depict the sexual relationship between the two main characters? What values are imparted?

  • Why is Virginia locked away in an asylum? What's the difference between her behavior and the attitudes toward such behavior?

Movie details

For kids who love drama and romance

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