The Public

by Toby Woollaston

tpBreakfast Clubber, Emilio Estevez, is causing more trouble in the library, this time jumping over the counter and playing a rogue librarian rather than a rogue student.

The Public focusses on an extraordinary day in the life of the Cincinnati Public Library during a particularly harsh winter. With an ever-growing number of homeless, many who shelter there during the day, the library’s resources are stretched to breaking point. When a number of them refuse to spend another freezing night outside, they hunker down for the night, ironically in the social sciences section. As a standoff between the homeless (plus a sympathetic librarian) and the authorities plays out you’d be forgiven for thinking that this story should have “based on true events” in its opening credits. It doesn’t. But this gives Estevez, who writes, directs and stars as the beleaguered librarian, plenty of wriggle-room to explore a plethora of social issues. Unfortunately, this also proves to be one of the film’s many problems.

Not least of its shortcomings are Baldwin and Slater who chime in with very utilitarian roles; Baldwin, a police negotiator and Slater a Trump-esque Mayoral candidate provide the callous face of right-wing politics. Both flesh out the film’s political stance but also bring a swathe of needless subplots that are left unresolved. There is an unsavoury whiff of “white saviour” keeping the capitalist menace at bay and when one homeless man says “They’re looking at us like a bunch of crazy angry n*ggers. It’s up to you to prove them wrong Mr. Goodson (Estevez)” the film makes clear who it thinks the power brokers are.

Furthermore, for a film about social issues, active female representation is disappointingly sparse. I’m fairly certain the homeless also include women, yet the only women here are a love interest (played by Taylor Schilling), a catty TV reporter and a passive library assistant. The noticeable lack of feminine agency might be an innocent oversight but the film feels so much the poorer for it.

Finally, there is inauthenticity to the dialogue which feels obvious, agenda-pushing and entirely at odds with the film’s candid style of cinematography. Despite Estevez using this film to comment on a dizzying array of social issues (class, race, poverty, addiction, politics, the economy, the environment), it barely scratches the surface of most of them. It’s clear that Estevez is well-meaning but ultimately, The Public is a movie that lacks any genuine depth.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.