“Your heavenly Father will forgive you if you forgive those who sin against you; but if you refuse to forgive them, he will not forgive you.” This gospel of Matthew is the thematic crux of Titus Kaphar’s feature debut Exhibiting Forgiveness, a nakedly emotional, overwrought, schematic tale of how the artistic process converges with the unexpected return of past trauma. Led by André Holland in an impressively anguished performance, the ensemble elevates a script that has its heart in the right place but feels lacking in layers of complexity that we see from the art on display.

Tarrell (Holland) is an accomplished painter working from a studio in his comfortably-adorned home, balancing his work within a family of artists. His wife Aisha (Andra Day) is a musician, requiring coordination of scheduling their creative pursuits, as they are also raising their young son Tre (Daniel Michael Barriere). Coming off a successful exhibit and quickly mounting their follow-up under the pressure of his agent Janine (Jaime Ray Newman), this is a far different portrait of an artist’s life than that of the fledgling Lizzy in Showing Up, yet both keenly observe the process of creation. Slivers of Tarrell’s difficult upbringing start to emerge, as we get visions of a derelict, homeless older man, violently waking up Tarrell in a panic attack. Is this nightmare real or a figment of his imagination? How does this troubling story fit into Tarrell’s past? These more subtle early passages, where Kaphar paints a portrait of a loving family interrupted by the shards of trauma, work far better than when the full breadth of pain is unveiled.

Despite his agent insisting his latest work is finished for the next exhibit, Tarrell has more fine-tuning to do, and Kaphar’s patience in showing an artist at work––specifically the arduous decisions he makes to advance his art beyond what may be described beautifully by conventional standards––are Exhibiting Forgiveness‘ stand-out moments. A celebrated artist in his own right, Kaphar’s personal paintings are featured here. They are among the finest examples of that tricky element of films about art: convincing the audience that what we’re seeing deserves immense acclaim. Tarrell’s paintings are borne of his agonizing past, one which gradually comes into focus when we learn the older, abandoned man in the visions Jerome (an excellent John Earl Jelks) is actually Tarrell’s estranged father whom he hasn’t seen in fifteen years. When Tarrell’s mother Joyce (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) invites him over to help her move, she stages a reunion that doesn’t go as planned. And yet, it finally forces Tarrell to confront the demons that have been swirling inside from the emotional and physical pain his father inflicted on him as a boy.

However verbally turbulent the father-son clash plays out, it’s captured with a rather tender, peaceful eye by cinematographer Lachlan Milne (Minari, The Inspection), creating a soulful inquiry into whether a relationship far past its breaking point could ever heal. Kaphar gratefully doesn’t neatly tie things up with easy answers, but one wishes the path to getting there carried as much grace as the craft on display. An early scene of Joyce hammering home to Jerome why he can’t just give up on Tarrell at the first sign of being pushed away over-verbalizes feelings of which the audience is already keenly aware. Later flashbacks unveil the indefensible torment Jermone afflicted on his family, and––as painful as these moments are to watch––there’s an emotionally manipulative quality to this structure. Layers are peeled back as needed, forcing drama as it progresses when it was more compelling in smaller glimpses.

Despite these flaws, Exhibiting Forgiveness suggests a filmmaker with promise, including an interesting use of fantastical elements to connect Tarrell’s present-day artwork with its origins. Through his script, Kaphar also eloquently explores how it’s often psychologically easier to forget or bury the past––particularly pertaining to Joyce, showing how women are often the ones to hold broken families together even if it’s through falling back on biblical rationale. And despite the heartache, an eternal love may still remain. Inspired by Kaphar’s own life, a sense of personal reckoning courses through his debut, as if writing each line was as painstaking a process as it is for Tarrell to guide each brushstroke. However labored and blunt the script can feel in certain passages, one comes away from Exhibiting Forgiveness wholly understanding the taxing process of seemingly impossible reconciliation. 

Exhibiting Forgiveness premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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