There are two-and-a-half stories being told in Tuscaloosa, and none of them is done any favors by being mashed together with the others. The year is 1972, and George Wallace, who vehemently opposed segregation as a candidate of a very different-looking Democratic Party, has been shot by an assassin and left paralyzed from the waist down. In the South, his supporters are the openly racist members of law enforcement, who enjoy terrorizing their African American constituents. Yet that lawful imbalance is for the most part mere background noise in a dull romantic drama.

Adapted from W. Glasgow Phillips’s novel of the same name, the movie in part follows Nigel (Marchánt Davis), an African American barbecue stand vendor who decides to fight back against the racist establishment in the Alabama city that is our setting. Every time writer-director Philip Harder returns to this story, we are reminded of its urgency and unfortunate timeliness.

Much of that is thanks to Davis’ impassioned, considered and nuanced portrayal of Nigel as a weary revolutionary. This is a good performance stuck within the machinations of a familiar plot, but when Davis is onscreen, the film is far more electrifying than when he isn’t. Unfortunately, more often than not, he isn’t. His storyline is pushed out for a tepid romance between Billy (Devon Bostick), an aimless teenager whose mother supposedly ran away with Nigel’s mother, and Virginia (Natalia Dyer), a patient at the mental hospital overseen by Billy’s father (Tate Donovan). There is almost no nuance in the handling of mental illness here, so Virginia is little more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Dyer’s bizarre performance, made of imprecise and over-the-top mental-illness clichés, does nothing to elevate the character above that frankly patronizing material, either. The actor plays the broadest notes of an underdeveloped and intentionally mysterious love interest for Billy, himself a bland and passive protagonist made only duller through his relationship with Virginia and his antagonism toward not-so-dear, old dad and by Bostick’s detached sincerity and laughable accent. Eventually, the two make a break for the open road, intending to find a bit of the sun and sand.

Inevitably, the stories of Billy’s directionless boredom, Virginia’s manic behavior and Nigel’s explosive revolution must all come together, and Harder manages to find all the wrong roads to take his audience there. This results in a sustained sense of tonal whiplash, as the filmmaker shifts between grave scenes of racial injustice and the quirky central romance, which seems to be premised entirely upon the awkward question of Virginia’s sanity.

These stories wrap up in what’s meant to be a happy ending, but it instead comes across as ominous. The offhand resolution of the mystery surrounding Billy’s and Nigel’s mothers brings a particularly cruel closure, and the shattering truth behind Virginia is revealed in a third-act twist that is another extended act of cruelty against the film’s only significant woman character. Perhaps the half of Tuscaloosa that is about mental illness is supposed to acknowledge a wider universe than the half about racial injustice. Unfortunately, when the torment of a man of color is muffled in the background of a discussion about the white protagonist’s need to find direction in his life, it’s a lost cause.

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