Rating: B+/ Based on homeless advocate Alexander Masters’ biography of his late friend, Stuart Shorter, this movie is an emotional roller coaster. Stuart (Tom Hardy) is the kind of guy people cross to the other side of the street to avoid. Drunk, drug-addicted, physically handicapped and mentally unsound, sporadically homeless junkie and Muscular Dystrophy patient Stuart is a man many would pity, but few would have the inclination to call ‘friend.’ Yet Alexander (Benedict Cumberbatch) reluctantly befriends him, after much initiating on Stuart’s part. The two men campaign together to release two homeless shelter aides wrongfully imprisoned by the courts, and along the way Alexander begins writing a book about Stuart’s troubled life story, which includes physical and sexual abuse, bullying, and early brushes with violent crime.
What Alexander doesn’t know (or doesn’t care to think about) is that Stuart is a ticking time bomb, a explosive personality waiting to be triggered and to combust in the faces of the people closest to him. Watching the film, it amazes me that Alexander didn’t get hurt, as Stuart proved time and again not only to be volatile, but also potentially dangerous. However, it is impossible not to feel bad for Stuart as you see via flashbacks how his life went so badly off the tracks. He’s like a big kid who has learned from experience that violence is the only way to get heard in this world.
Tom Hardy does a wonderful job in this movie and is thoroughly committed to bringing the addict Stuart Shorter to life without sentimentalizing him or selling him short. Through this movie, we remember that the cycle of violence is what allows abuse to cycle on through the generations, and if we are to eliminate violence we must remove children from situations in which they are victims.Touchingly, the audience watches as Alexander grows from feeling obviously uncomfortable around Stuart and apathetic about the plight of the homeless to being a caring friend and confidante.
Rough, heartbreaking, but not maudlin or sentimental, Stuart: A Life Backwards benefits from two excellent performances from it’s leads and that’s a good thing, since it is these two actors that are pretty much running the show and seize the opportunity to make this movie what it is. Stuart is not a sentimental caricature of a saintly homeless man, nor is he the kind of maudlin pantomime of a disabled person we have grown so used to seeing in American television and film. He’s angry, disruptive, and wildly unstable, a neutron bomb in search of a target. But he’s also funny, quite charming, and altogether pretty sweet-natured if you catch him in the right mood. And he’s a good friend to Alexander, with whom he has a puckish, almost brotherly relationship.
Stuart: A Life Backwards is a television film, but it ain’t no After School Special. It’s hard to watch at times, with sporadic violence and full-frontal nudity, and the things Stuart goes through as a kid are not easy or pleasant viewing. But due to top-notch acting and script, you find yourself being sucked into Stuart’s sad pathetic story (for that is really who the movie is about, not Alexander) and becoming invested in his plight. It’s easy to condemn people like Stuart, people who live on the dole and abuse narcotics, but this movie offers us a unique perspective and answers the ‘why’ of how one man got to be in the situation he is in, while not devolving into a weepy, pat plea for tolerance.
The only major complaint I have about this movie is that I wish it were more widely available! Also, it was very hard to understand Stuart’s Muscular Dystrophy- and heroin- slurred voice without English closed captioning on my DVD. I think this movie is far superior to the more well-known and publicized drama The Soloist. It’s applied with a lighter touch, a strange thing to say about a movie featuring a drug-addicted alcoholic physically handicapped homeless man, but it never tries too hard with music or grand displays of grief to make you feel something. This movie made me want to swear never to bitch about how badly I have it again, even on your worst day there is always someone who has it like ten times worse. Things shouldn’t have ended for Stuart Shorter the way they did, and the movie will make you feel a mix of emotions- grief, anger, and unexpectedly, bittersweetness; as you deal with the profound sadness behind each frame.