Filmmaker Marcellus Cox’s drama “Mickey Hardaway” speaks to the systemic failure of community that enables the vulnerable among us to get lost.

“We don’t heal in isolation, but in community. Often it isn’t the initiating trauma that creates seemingly insurmountable pain, but the lack of support after.”

– S. Kelley Harrell.

If there’s one thing any of us know for certain, none of us choose to be here. We don’t will ourselves into existence, we’re formed through the combining of genetic material, gestated until we’re ready (or not) to be released into the world. From there, as we develop into full humans, we decide how we want to exist in the world, except it’s not so easy to just make a declaration and go forth to make it so. Sometimes our development is held back by those responsible for guiding our growth refusing to do more than the bare minimum, either due to circumstance, generational trauma, or plain disinterest. But what happens to the children in these circumstances? Writer/director Marcellus Cox explores the fallout of systemic failure upon a singular child in his feature debut, Mickey Hardaway, fresh off the festival circuit and available to stream via Tubi, Prime Video, and other digital retailers. By and large, the message within Mickey Hardaway is an important one and one worth exploring, even if marred by the roughness of the execution.

Artist Mickey Hardaway (Rashad Hunter) is nearing the end of his rope between childhood trauma and losing his job in his desired field of animation. With a supportive push from his girlfriend Grace (Ashley Parchment), Mickey starts seeing acclaimed therapist Dr. Cameron Harden (Stephen Cofield Jr.) and, through their sessions, Mickey starts facing what he’s been running from. But the further the two dig, the farther from ground Mickey gets, reaching a zenith that neither may walk away from unscathed.

Before we get into the execution, let’s explore the themes of Mickey.

We do not come into this world alone, but it can often feel as though we are isolated as we come up within it. Via denigration from parents, school bullies, and general life disappointments, we can grow convinced that our value is directly connected to how gentle someone is to us, creating a foundation of social distrust that erodes ones spirit. Through Hunter’s Mickey, a young Black male, Cox shows the audience one version of a person who is almost entirely told that he’s less than, thereby making the attempt at staying on the right path almost impossible. Unlike other 2023 release Creed III, which has characters literally balk at the idea of talking to someone (a continuation of the stigma within the Black community of the value of therapy), Cox’s film is almost entirely a discussion between Mickey and Dr. Harden: a confrontation of the mind. Though one might think that going to therapy is a waste of time, centering much of the story on their conversations does two impactful things: it demonstrates that there are tools to help one improve their lives and that there’s nothing wrong with confronting trauma with assistance. That said, Cox smartly sets up the drama of the tale with little moments like when Grace leaves Mickey on Dr. Harden’s doorstep to go to his initial appointment alone. It’s a small choice that signals Grace is a supportive person and wants to give Mickey room to challenge himself, but it’s Hunter’s reaction as Mickey that lets us know that her absence — the physical act of her walking away from him — is being internally processed as another slight against his person. By learning of his struggle, we understand, even sympathize, with that feeling, yet it stands out as a signifier for the pain to come. To his credit, Cox ensures that there are several moments throughout Mickey in which Mickey is shown compassion and given guidance; however, in each instance, they come from people whose roles in Mickey’s life (professional, romantic, etc.) define their limitations and ultimately are unable to create the rejuvenative foundation for Mickey to grow past the abuse he suffers in order to go into adulthood psychologically healthy. So, while Cox makes a point to include that community support that works to raise up young minds, the film doesn’t hide the community’s restrictions and how lofty ideals don’t mean anything when we still leave the person, in this case Mickey, alone to deal with things themselves. It’s one thing for a teacher to recognize and encourage a student’s talent, but they can’t change the home circumstances that prevent said student from exploring their talent. It’s one thing for a friend to recommend a company for employment, but that friend can’t be held responsible for the failings of the boss.

This is where we get into the execution of things and where aspects work and others don’t to create the evocative thematic piece that Mickey is. Where things work is when Cox employs several time jumps, the first starting at the end, then jumping backward to fill in the blanks. This not only informs the audience of where things are headed, enabling them to watch Mickey’s journey with a greater sense of foreboding, but it also gives the film a certain inevitability that raises the drama. Additionally, whether it’s intentional or not, one can read some of the time jumps instigated by Mickey’s therapy sessions as his perception of things versus an impartial truth. We’re a third-party observer and most audiences are set up to be watching things as they play out, taking them as literal actions and intentions; however, thanks to the opening, we already know that Mickey is psychologically traumatized so there’s a sense that the stories he tells Dr. Harden, and, by extension, the audience, are just his perceived versions of things. If this is the case, it explains why so much of the film is in black and white (memory versus live action; a pallor view versus a joyous one) and why most interactions in Mickey’s life are full of hostility. It would also explain some of the dialogue that doesn’t track within the context of someone’s life versus the need to get the audience up to speed. Perception is everything and it colors all we see and do in this life. For instance, while we might have heard some truly heinous filth come out of our abusive parent’s mouth, would they really have said something that implies the lack of existence of an older sibling that all know to exist and have lived in the house? Perhaps they did say it or perhaps it was felt to be true — it’s hard to determine since the flashbacks are technically narrated by Mickey and he’s proving to be more and more unreliable as we go along. The lack of clarity is smart, indicating that the issues Mickey’s grappling with are deep and profound, his monochrome view of the world virtually unshakable, making the violence we observe all the more heartbreaking in its inevitability.

What reduces Mickey is the inconsistency in small things along the journey that can be as much an issue of production as it is creation. For instance, Cox uses date text to show us what year it is when there’s a time jump, but not always, the inconsistency creating a sense of confusion when a jump first happens and we’re left grappling with whether what we saw was real based on the scene that follows between Mickey and Grace. Then there’s that aforementioned dialogue that doesn’t track within the larger context of a scene. Mickey’s identity is based around his love of drawing, and in the first scene with the youngest depiction of Mickey, his older brother exalts him whereas his mother doesn’t understand what he’s doing. He’s clearly been drawing for some time to have his brother speaking about his work as he does and this shouldn’t be the first time his mother has seen it. Actor Gayla Johnson (Bye Bye Body) does a great job as Jackie Hardaway, Mickey’s mother, in conveying the sort of checked-out-yet-trying-to-be-connected mother who encourages her son even when she doesn’t understand. That said, the way the scene plays, it’s more about giving the audience information than serving the characters, especially when the brother all-but-disappears and his existence is basically erased via a powerful hard-hitting rant from David Chattam’s (The Last Castle) Randall Hardaway, Mickey’s father. Like the above, one can understand individual items like sound that clips or is unbalanced, performances that don’t always sell the emotion the way the scene requires, or a montage of celebrated members of the Black community being included with the credits (for reasons unclear at present) as each of these examples are emblematic of either indie pictures or a creative developing their vision. But repeated inconsistencies make it difficult for even the most compelling narrative to hit its intended mark.

Mickey Hardaway is a powerful film. It speaks the various ways we fail our children, first by presuming they are responsible for our own failings, then by placing our anger upon them, and then not providing them the resources to manage that unearned trauma. In this case, with one phrase, “How much time you’ve got?,” Cox articulates that one hour isn’t enough time for any single person to get the attention they need, but, at the very least, it’s a start. Though all responsibility for our actions is ultimately our own, when one of us falls, it’s also a failure of the community to ensure that they had help when they needed it.

Available on digital August 25th, 2023.

Final Score: 3 out of 5.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Mickey Hardaway poster

Categories: Reviews, streaming

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