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‘Jason’s Lyric’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 28, 1994

"Jason's Lyric" is a three-sided love story, but it's also a movie about the entanglements of the past. Directed by Doug McHenry from a powerful script by Bobby Smith Jr., this impressive debut has at its center the relationship between two radically different grown-up brothers. Jason (Allen Payne), the older of the two, is a soft-spoken, serious young man with an almost courtly manner who sticks close to home and takes care of his mother (Suzzanne Douglas). By contrast, Joshua (Bokeem Woodbine) can't stay out of trouble. An alcoholic with a sullen, explosive personality, he lurches from one personal disaster to another.

Early on, Joshua is just getting out of prison and Jason, as he has done throughout most of their lives, tries to put him under his protective wing. But as soon as Joshua is back out on the streets, he gets blind drunk and spoils his own coming-home party. Though Jason struggles to bring his brother into the straight life, it soon becomes clear that Joshua is beyond his help.

Under other circumstances, Jason might be able to simply cut Joshua loose and let him sink on his own. But the brothers are joined by tragic ties that cannot be severed. It is in laying out this bond between the siblings that McHenry shows his greatest sensitivity.

The family's problems began when the boys' father, Maddog (played with raging passion by Forest Whitaker), returned from Vietnam with a drinking problem. One night when he became violent with their mother, the boys came to her rescue, and a deadly shot was fired.

Smith and McHenry don't reveal which brother killed Maddog until the very end of the film, but considering how devastating the incident was to both their lives, it hardly matters who actually pulled the trigger. Overwhelmed by guilt and plagued by nightmares, Jason is so preoccupied with the past that he can't bring himself to dream about the future. Then he meets Lyric (Jada Pinkett), a self-possessed beauty who quotes John Donne and persuades Jason to leave home and begin a new life with her.

The emotional relationships here are so tangled and complex that an explosion is inevitable, and McHenry leads up to it with sure, tense steps. Lyric pleads with Jason to abandon Joshua, and Joshua, who is afraid that she will steal his brother away from him, responds with violent jealousy.

At one point in the film, Joshua explains why he drinks so much: "Booze is like garlic -- it keeps the ghosts away." And in the end, "Jason's Lyric" is as much a ghost story as it is a romance or a tale of two brothers. Unfortunately, though, some spirits cannot be escaped -- a point that McHenry makes with an assurance that is both convincing and heartbreakingly tragic.

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