Stories about family members who have become distant and reconnecting have become a recurring theme at Sundance, creating a subgenre that can feel repetitive. However, Titus Kaphar, an artist turned filmmaker, brings a unique and heartfelt approach to his debut film Exhibiting Forgiveness, which is being featured in the main dramatic competition. While it may not completely reinvent the genre, Kaphar’s film stands out from the others with its genuine and delicate portrayal of the subject matter.
Kaphar uses art as a means of therapy to address his troubled relationship with his father. The inspiration came from a recorded conversation they had after being estranged for 15 years. While it can be easy to become self-absorbed when exploring personal struggles through autofiction, Kaphar has skillfully created a piece that reaches beyond his own experiences. It is a poignant and emotionally charged drama that will resonate with others who have also faced the challenge of radical forgiveness.
What is the limit for taking and when does holding onto resentment become more harmful? These are questions that have been buried by Tarrell, a painter played by André Holland, who has built a carefully curated life far from his troubled upbringing. His loving mother (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) is overshadowed by the presence of his abusive father, La’Ron (theatre actor John Earl Jelks). Despite his efforts to ignore it, something is eating away at him, manifesting in night terrors. When he returns home with his wife (the radiant Andra Day) and young son to help his mother move, the reappearance of his father forces him to confront difficult truths.
Kaphar presents challenging inquiries without giving simple solutions. These include grappling with the idea of a parent who has both good and bad qualities, and learning to quiet the negative aspects of that parent’s influence. Flashbacks are limited but impactful, showing a day when La’Ron instilled a strong work ethic in young Tarrell, believing it necessary for survival in the world. Tarrell wonders how much credit he owes his father for his successful career, and how much of his own toughness can be attributed to his father’s upbringing. Kaphar allows these difficult moments to linger as Tarrell expresses his worries and anxieties, unsure if he will ever navigate through his emotional struggles. The film also touches on the hypocrisy of religion, with Tarrell exhausted by the way it is used to portray goodness despite contradictory actions.
Holland’s face reflects all of the turbulence he carries, a constant simmering rage that he attributes to his father. This darker side of himself is something he readily acknowledges. He shines here, portraying a dream-like character in every scene, a role that he has never truly been given the opportunity to play on screen before. There are numerous electrifying moments, including his heated arguments with his mother over her unwavering love for his father and a climactic outburst of emotion, that solidify Holland as a contender in next year’s Oscar race and finally secure him the prestigious leading roles he has long deserved. Both Ellis-Taylor and Jelks deliver superb performances as his parents, their intimate arguments portrayed with such rawness that it feels like we are watching a live stage performance.
Kaphar, a first-time director with a background in visual art, offers a refreshing approach to filmmaking. He avoids using visual gimmicks and only incorporates his real paintings when necessary. He recognizes the significance of using art to unpack a difficult upbringing, but does not rely on pretentious statements. Instead, he allows the artwork to speak for itself. As a writer, Kaphar does have some missteps, including a slight overdose of melodrama towards the end, stereotypical portrayals of the art world, and clunky lines like “Some things can’t be worked out on a canvas.” However, these moments are only temporary distractions from the emotionally gripping finale that ties all the threads together. Kaphar’s film deviates from the expected happy ending, acknowledging that forgiveness is not always easy.
The film “Exhibiting Forgiveness” will be shown at the Sundance Film Festival and is looking for a distributor.