The city at the heart of Joe Talbot’s new film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, is depicted with equal parts whimsy and despair. The opening images track a little girl, dressed up for school, as she skips along the bay, with a soft oboe score playing on the soundtrack. As she runs, she zips by police tape and men in hazmat suits who are engaged in the cleanup of the toxic water behind her. Quickly, the action turns to Jimmie (played by Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), best friends skateboarding around San Francisco’s historic Fillmore District. Talbot’s camera turns to take in a city half in the past and half in the future, where dilapidated storefronts buttress gorgeous mansions, and fleece-wearing tech bros gaze in horror at our heroes having fun.
Talbot’s film, his feature debut, is a personal story he devised with Fails as a teen (Talbot co-wrote the screenplay with Rob Richert). It follows Fails, who plays a character named after himself, as he tries to reclaim the magnificent home he lived in as a child, one his grandfather supposedly built in 1946. Every day, Jimmie gets up in the home he shares with Montgomery (an aspiring playwright who lives with his grandfather) and skates to the Fillmore to do upkeep on a house that technically doesn’t belong to him—painting the shutters, replanting the garden, trimming the hedges. The home’s owners try to shoo him away, but to Jimmie, they’re just tenants, people moving through a place that’s always been his.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco won prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it has the painterly, mannered approach of other titans of American indie cinema, such as Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson. Every frame feels precisely blocked, and even Talbot’s efforts to capture the more desolate parts of the city have a haunted sort of beauty to them. This is no work of hard-hitting realism; it’s more of an elegy for the world Talbot and Fails grew up in. At times, Talbot’s emphasis on style is a little too precious to connect with emotionally, but there’s at least an inherent sweetness to the story.
What plot there is meanders along slowly. When the Fillmore homeowners depart and the house is left empty because of an estate dispute, Jimmie seizes the opportunity to move in, ignoring its multimillion-dollar asking price and enlisting Montgomery to help him transport the Fails family’s old belongings back inside. The rest of the action ping-pongs between the fantasy life the two friends create inside their reclaimed manse and the reality that begins to encroach on them anyway, as neighbors find out about their daring reclamation project and Montgomery clashes with some tougher friends from his side of town.
Given its setting, The Last Black Man in San Francisco reminded me most of last year’s Oakland-set Blindspotting, another filmmaking debut that told a tragicomic tale of ever-changing life in the Bay Area. Where that film was kinetic, Talbot’s is sleepy and pensive, but both are powered by extreme earnestness. “You can’t hate it unless you love it,” Jimmie says of San Francisco at one point, and both stories are about that essential struggle—the deep love people have for the places they’re brought up in, and the deep despair they have for the ways those places change.
As The Last Black Man in San Francisco moves on, it tells snapshot stories about the rest of its ensemble. There are Montgomery’s grandfather (Danny Glover), Jimmie’s sister Wanda (Tichina Arnold), and Jimmie’s irascible father James (Rob Morgan), who angrily tries to dismiss his son’s rose-tinted memories of his childhood in the city. The film then shambles toward a grand finale in which Montgomery stages a play he’s been writing inside the magical house, a dramatic attempt to tie the movie’s themes together after two hours of gentle narrative.
The conclusion doesn’t quite land. Talbot’s storytelling approach is a little too hermetic and abstract, and Montgomery is an inscrutable character for much of the movie, played by Majors as a gentle giant who’s been holding in profound insights. The Last Black Man in San Francisco works best as a mood piece, and as its final act swung back toward heavy plotting, it mostly lost me, getting bogged down in thinly sketched interpersonal dynamics. The film’s greatest virtue lies in how it portrays the city it’s rhapsodizing about, and that’s what Talbot’s promising, large-canvas photography is best suited for.