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By Pete Vonder Haar | March 10, 2009

Set in the decidedly non-tourist friendly environs of North Philadelphia, “Explicit Ills” – the screenwriting and directorial debut of actor Mark Webber – follows a diverse cast of characters as they try to get ahead in their lives, a few of which are dangerously close to slipping through the cracks.

There’s Kaleef (Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter), who’s just trying to get his health store off the ground while romancing single mom Jill (Naomie Harris), while young Demetri (Martin Cepeda, Jr.) tries his best to impress the mysterious Girl (Destini Edwards) who lives in his projects. Drug dealer Jacob (Lou Taylor Pucci) has entered a tempestuous relationship with artist Michelle (Frankie Shaw), and Babo (Fransisco Burgos) strikes up a friendship with struggling actor Rocco (Paul Dano).

First the good: “Explicit Ills” looks fantastic. DP Patrice Cochet brings the streets of Philadelphia (to coin a phrase) to vivid life, giving even the bleakest ghetto corners a stark beauty. And as for the movie itself, Webber avoids the common first-timer pitfall of trying to cram too much into the film’s running time. He has enough respect for the audience’s intelligence not to try and backfill every character’s life story. The performances are generally respectable, with Trotter – on a break from his day job with the Roots – making a nice debut. Dano and top-billed Rosario Dawson (as Babo’s mother) are the most effective. Typically, they also have the least amount of screen time.

For all that, “Explicit Ills” might have benefited from paring down the Jacob/Michelle arc, as stories of tortured urban artists tend to garner little interest from those who don’t run in similar circles. Webber tries, in the end, to tie everything together into his larger message about the plight of the urban poor. The march on City Hall referenced throughout the film finally takes place, uniting many of the movie’s principals, and we’re also treated to a shot of someone spray painting “revolt” on a wall. This not-so-subtle proselytizing works better in the context of Babo’s and Demetri’s stories, not so much those of Jacob and Michelle, who definitely bear more responsibility for their respective plights.

As a look at the disenfranchised of America, “Explicit Ills” could use some work. As a debut, however, it’s quite promising. I’m looking forward to seeing what Webber comes up with next.

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