Eloise is one amazing 7-year-old. The adorable little girl at the center of “Black or White” cooks her own pancakes while delegating the table-setting; coaches her grandfather on how to be a stern authority figure; and, when he turns to alcohol after the loss of his wife, shakes her head and says, “I hate it when you drink.”
Aside from a brief moment when she’s flopped in front of the television and an iPad, the kid is like some kind of unicorn. And her character pretty well sums up “Black or White.” The movie paints a sweet, memorable picture, but also an overly convenient one.
Eloise (impressively played by cute-as-a-button Jillian Estell) has been under the guardianship of her grandparents, a white, well-to-do Los Angeles couple with a pool and a maid and the means to send Eloise to the best prep school in town. The pair’s daughter, Eloise’s mother, died in childbirth. And while the father, who is black and a drug addict, has never been in the picture, his family has.
The custody arrangement seems to be working out, at least until Eloise’s grandmother dies suddenly, and her widower, Elliot (Kevin Costner), becomes a single (grand)father. He doesn’t know how to brush Eloise’s hair and gets lost taking her to school. He also drinks whiskey for breakfast. So the girl’s paternal grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), thinks it might be time for Eloise to move in with her, in a bustling house with lots of family in South Central L.A. Before you know it, Rowena has enlisted her brother, a high-powered lawyer (Anthony Mackie), to help her get full custody, and things get ugly fast with finger-pointing, dirt-digging and accusations of racism.
The script, penned by director Mike Binder, smartly doles out details slowly. The circumstances of Eloise’s birth and her father’s subsequent behavior aren’t fully revealed until the movie is almost over, leaving a bit of mystery. But the writing is also overwrought. The performances are fantastic across the board, with Costner acting in his trademark low-key naturalistic style and Spencer as the picture of no-nonsense maternal love.
But their efforts can’t make up for overly simplified characters, not to mention melodramatic exchanges that sound exactly like written dialogue. This is especially apparent during courtroom scenes — when filmmakers just love to amp up the drama — and though the moments don’t reach “you can’t handle the truth”-caliber histrionics, they still test credulity. (Apparently opposing counsel won’t object to prejudicial testimony as long as it’s delivered as a triumphant monologue.)
“Black or White” is, in some ways, more of an exercise than a story. It poses questions worth asking: Can a white man raise and love his granddaughter but still have racial biases? Shouldn’t a biracial girl be exposed to the full spectrum of her cultural identity?
The title suggests there are no easy answers. So why does everything feel so tidy?
PG-13. At area theaters.
Contains brief strong language, drug use, drinking and a fight.