Troubled waters

Denzel Washington's directorial debut Antwone Fisher is often saccharine and maudlin, but also hard to resist. Washington has surely seen his share of feel-good stories of hopeless kids and lost cases transformed into upstanding citizens by film's end by a doctor or a teacher's kindly attention. Antwone Fisher is of that ilk, both subscribing to the conventions of up-by-the-bootstraps cinema, while honoring the most human urge known to us — the craving for home and family.

Antwone Fisher's screenplay was written by the young man of the film's title, whose personal Cinderella story involves a script which managed to attract the attention of some Sony producers while Antwone worked as a security guard at the studio. Played by Derek Luke in the film, Fisher seems to have been touched by such moments of grace throughout his life, but also by horrendous brutality, including a father who was murdered before Antwone was born.

His story is told in flashback, with Antwone now a grown man who has carved a niche for himself in the Navy, though his future in the service is jeopardized by his frequent fighting and belligerence. But a substitute father and sympathetic ear soon enters the picture in the form of a Navy psychiatrist, Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington), who tries to discern the source of Antwone's unhappiness.

Antwone finds its center in this developing relationship between the kind, attentive psychiatrist and the angry young sailor. Antwone shows the heartbreaking damage of not just child abuse, but the nagging, unshakable reality Antwone grows up with — that he was easily abandoned to the cruelty of foster homes, where he and his foster siblings pick out fantasy mothers in the Sears catalogue.

Luke is an endearing lead, keeping Antwone's emotions internal until they spill out fitfully in confessionals with Davenport. And beneath the film's routine structure — including a budding love story between Antwone and a pretty Navy sailor (Joy Bryant) — is a genuinely tragic story in which children are set adrift, abandoned to a world that offers them only ugliness instead of protection.??