Decades after he played a troubled jock suffering through detention in a high school library, Emilio Estevez has returned to a library — this time, to tell a very different sort of story. “The Public,” which Estevez wrote, produced, directed and starred in, received a special screening Friday, March 22, at the Paramount Theater. Co-sponsored by the Virginia Festival of the Book and the Virginia Film Festival, the event also featured an appearance by Estevez himself, who spoke alongside a panel of community leaders moderated by The Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday.
Long before the film began, the Paramount was packed and not just because of the celebrity factor. Given the subject matter of “The Public,” the demographics of the audience were more diverse than is typical for Festival events — whether book- or film-related. Employees from The Haven, a local, multi-resource day shelter, Charlottesville’s On Our Own, a peer support and recovery center, and Jefferson-Madison Regional Library attended “The Public” in droves.
This latter category was celebrated when Jane Kulow, director of The Festival of the Book, gave opening remarks on the film and its content. “All librarians please stand,” Kulow said, and across the theater, a scattering of the public employees complied. The audience gave them thunderous applause, which turned into an impromptu standing ovation when Kulow added, “Everyone who’s ever been helped by a librarian, please stand.” By the time the hubbub had died down and audience members returned to their seats, they were in the ideal frame of mind to watch a movie that is, in many ways, a love letter to librarians.
“The Public” follows Stuart Goodson (Estevez), a mild-mannered supervisor at Cincinnati’s Main Library, over the course of two particularly chilly days and nights in the city. Goodson maintains a friendly relationship with the group of homeless men who use the space of the library daily as a shelter. When leader of the group Jackson (an excellent Michael Kenneth Williams) approaches Goodson with an appeal to stay overnight in the library, the somewhat timid librarian is faced with a choice — turn dozens of homeless men out into the likely lethal cold or barricade them, along with himself, into the library, an act that almost guarantees he’ll lose his job. Of course, he makes the more humane choice, and thus the plot — at times funny, moving and thought-provoking — is set into motion.
Estevez shines quietly as the understated lead of “The Public.” The film often resorts to humor of an almost slapstick variety, so the guiding presence of Goodson’s character helps provide a little more dramatic balance. His is also the most nuanced character by far in “The Public” — many of the supporting roles feel unrealistic or sketched-out in comparison. Christian Slater, for instance, plays the laughably villainous Josh Davis, a prosecutor vying for mayor who has no qualms about sending the homeless men back to the streets. The movie’s dialogue, sometimes stilted, is at its most implausible whenever Davis opens his mouth.
Likewise, the character of Angela (Taylor Schilling) is a frustrating waste of a talented actress. As Goodson’s half-hearted love interest and the only reason the movie’s timeline is two days instead of one — the night before Goodson locks himself in the library, he gets it on with Angela — her role is confused and ultimately unnecessary.
Many other characters — Detective Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin), a crisis negotiator with a personal stake in the matter, a self-centered local TV reporter (Gabrielle Union) who skews the story in her favor, Goodson’s social justice-focused coworker Myra (Jena Malone) — at first round out and then overstuff the cast. The story Estevez wants to tell is an important one, but it doesn’t need to be such a complex one. While watching, it’s hard not to imagine, and maybe wish for a stripped-down version of the tale — one that takes place in a 24 hour period, say, and jettisons a quarter of its cast.
Despite the flaws of “The Public,” the movie is well-made on a production level, entertaining and clearly genuine. There should have been no doubt in viewers’ minds that Estevez cares deeply about the content of this story — and even if there was, the filmmaker himself walked onstage post-credits to better explain just how much “The Public” means to him.
When prompted by Hornaday to discuss his political motivations, Estevez referred to his family as formative influences — specifically, his father Martin Sheen, fellow actor and activist. “My father has been arrested 66 to 68 times, depending on who you ask,” Estevez said. He said that while at first, his father’s peaceful demonstrations and subsequent incarcerations baffled him, he grew to realize their power and cited “nonviolent civil disobedience” as one of the most effective ways to deliver a political message.
A few minutes into their conversation, Estevez and Hornaday were joined onstage by Cyndi Richardson, esteemed staff member of On Our Own, Herb Dickerson, outreach coordinator and shift supervisor of The Haven and JMRL Director David Plunkett. Each member of the community congratulated Estevez on “The Public” and confirmed, from personal experience, its authenticity.
Richardson praised the film’s focus on portraying the homeless population as people rather than a problem. “We are all the same,” she said.
Dickerson, a former addict and homeless person himself, was blown away by the realistic depictions of both those in need and those who are willing to help. “My everyday life — it’s what you depicted in the film,” he said.
Plunkett, meanwhile, praised Estevez for “how well [he] hit on the professional ethos of being a librarian.” Estevez, in turn, discussed the research he had done in libraries and what he had noticed about the “sacred” librarian-patron relationship, comparing it to what is shared between a doctor and patient or a lawyer and client.
Throughout the talk, Estevez kept emphasizing the importance of libraries and the people who work in them — which, for a crowd with an impressive showing of librarians, prompted near-continuous applause. Just before leaving the stage, he shouted his parting message to the audience. “Occupy your library. Donate to your library.”