It’s a little surreal to meet Emilio Estevez in a library. Movie fans of a certain age would be forgiven for expecting him to break out dancing on top of the stacks, like he did thirty-some years ago in “The Breakfast Club.”
But today, the ’80s avatar is in the midst of rebranding himself. Now 56, Estevez has directed six films. His seventh, “The Public,” had its world premiere Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival. Like most of his previous directorial efforts, the film is suffused with modest, humanist values that raise an inescapable question: Can a guy as nice as Emilio Estevez get ahead in this business while still finding his place in it?
“That is the question,” Estevez said during an interview at the Toronto Public Library. He’s been a fan of libraries since doing most of his research for his 2006 film, “Bobby” in his local downtown branch in Los Angeles. “The Public,” which stars Taylor Schilling, Alec Baldwin, Jeffrey Wright and Gabrielle Union (among many others), was filmed in 2017 at the Cincinnati Public Library. The movie takes place during a life-threatening cold snap in the city, when a group of homeless men, many of them struggling with mental illness and addiction, barricade themselves inside with the help of a caring reference librarian, played by Estevez himself.
The film was inspired by an essay that the filmmaker read several years ago by a librarian explaining how cuts in the social safety net had made him and his colleagues de facto first responders in one of the last bastions of shared social space for people of all backgrounds, social classes and ethnic identities.
After Sunday’s debut — which was greeted with a rousing ovation from the audience — “The Public” received encouraging reviews, if not outright raves. (The Hollywood Reporter called it a “scrappy feel-good drama.”) Now Estevez is in the midst of trying to convince distributors that an audience exists for a film that he admits “sort of lives between floors. It’s not documentary, it is a dramatic narrative. But it’s about something that is very real and happening on the daily.” It’s also, he says, “a movie that at its core is about social activism.”
In some ways, the potential audience for “The Public” overlaps with the one he found for “The Way,” his 2010 film, in which he cast his father, Martin Sheen, as a grieving father walking the Camino de Santiago in memory of his deceased son. Estevez wound up self-distributing that movie, going city to city on a bus with Sheen to drum up enthusiasm; “The Way” went on to have an incredibly healthy afterlife, becoming an evergreen hit with faith-based audiences who are as energized by its irreverent wit and occasional iconoclasm as by its sincere engagement of spiritual questions.
Although “The Public” isn’t nominally a faith-based film, it’s thematically adjacent. “There are some faith elements to this film,” Estevez admits, adding that “there’s a goodness to this film that I think exists in ‘The Way.’ ” Where the earlier film inspired “tens of thousands” of people to hike the Camino, Estevez says, “The Public” could have similar potential.
“It may inspire people to look at mental illness differently, at homelessness differently, to look at libraries differently, to actually go into a library,” Estevez says. “I mean, how long has it been since most people have actually been inside a public library because they have access to computers and cellphones and iPads? And isn’t that really the great divide? It’s the digital divide between class and race. And the public library offers that up for free. They are an essential bridge. If this movie serves to reintroduce people to the value of what public libraries are, it could have a similar ripple effect.”
As Estevez meets with distributors, he’s been heartened by the success of such films as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and “RBG” over the summer — films that, like his, seek to awaken the better angels of viewers’ natures. Andy Peterson, principal and co-owner at the marketing and distribution firm Aspiration Entertainment, believes that “The Public” “has a shot at connecting now in a way that it might not have even six months ago.” (Aspiration provided consulting services for the film ahead of its Toronto premiere.)
Pointing to the success of “Neighbor” and “RBG,” as well as the television show “This Is Us,” Peterson says there’s a demographic of viewers most studios overlook when composing their marketing plans — consumers who “are not trying to avoid the pain that’s present for most of us in our everyday lives by escaping it with sci-fi fantasy and comic superheroes — they want to cry, to feel something so deeply they almost can’t express it with words, to remember what it was like to be small and scared and vulnerable.”
Estevez, who showed “The Public” at an American Library Association meeting over the summer, agrees that there is an audience out there for the kinder, gentler movie he’s now dedicated to making. “We have become so cynical, and I think it’s reflected in — well, we know where it’s reflected. It’s reflected minute by minute on social media,” he says. “This is a film that pushes back against that. This film is about understanding our humanity a little bit better, and getting to the granular as opposed to just a wide-swath bias. We assign certain stories to people we see on the street, and we write it off as . . . whatever choices they made to arrive here. But that’s our story about them, that’s not their story. Oftentimes when homeless people are asked . . . how they’d like to be looked at by the public, it’s just to be regarded. Smiled at. Said hello to. Valued. Seen and heard. And that is an act of compassion that costs you nothing.”