Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: Liberty Heights (1999)

Let it be known: I love coming of age stories. Yes they can be rather saccharine and mind-numbingly formulaic at times, but for me that is sometimes the appeal of the pictures. We are all guilty of looking at our youth from a romanticized perspective, although we will swear up and down that our recollection of these events are exactly as we say they are.

My selection from this week’s overlooked film – Liberty Heights (1999) tends to tell its story a little bit straighter but that does not make it any less enjoyable. In fact, that is one of the appealing aspects of the film for me, especially since it is not a period in I know about first-hand.

What I find so fascinating about this period of time in America is mainly what I have learned from history. Underneath the surface of suburban tranquility, there lied an undercurrent of an impending social and cultural upheaval. So it is interesting in looking back at a time that is not part of my life experience through the eyes of someone who lived it.

The eyes with which we view this world through are those of Barry Levinson, director of The Natural, Rain Man, and Good Morning Vietnam to name a few. In Liberty Heights,  Levinson manages to strike a balance between presenting his tale to a knowing audience while also showing the world his characters inhabit as they lived it. Put another way, what often happens with period pieces is that there is some revisionism in how much the characters are self-aware that they are a part of something greater. Of course in reality, we don’t live our lives in that greater context; most of us go about our lives just trying to make the best out of what is laid out before us.

The plot: the story is a semi-autobiographical tale of Levinson’s experiences growing up in a Jewish suburban neighborhood in Baltimore, circa 1954. We are drawn into the parallel stories of Van and Ben Kurtzman (portrayed by Adrien Brody and Ben Foster respectively). Van is in college and Ben (our primary protagonist) is a high school student.

Ben’s school has recently been integrated and he quickly finds himself intrigued (and attracted) to a new African American female in his class. You probably know where this story goes from there … Meanwhile, Van has an encounter with a mysterious blonde who he instantly falls for.

There is also a subplot that deals with the Kurtzman patriarch (Joe Mantegna) and his less-than-above-the-board dealings. This storyline in particular did not interest me as much, but its presence is a part of the plot development.

This film plays on two levels – the racial politics surrounding desegregation as well as the class politics of Van’s burgeoning relationship with an “All-American” girl. But like I previously stated, what makes this story watchable is that in spite of our “knowing” the context in which all the action is taking place, the characters are not absolutely operating in the know (if you catch my meaning).

While there are a couple of things about the film that left me a bit ambivalent, on balance, I enjoyed watching it.  In other words, a minor Barry Levinson film is better than some of the best offerings of other directors out there.

Oh yeah and the soundtrack is pretty good too (if you like 1950’s rock ‘n roll).



  1. Patti Abbott says:

    I guess he could never top DINER but this was enjoyable.

    • @Patti – that is one of the blessings and curse of making a career/generation defining picture early on in one’s filmography … most everything you do is kind of in the shadow of that piece.

  2. Jack Deth says:

    Hi, iluv and company:

    ‘Diner’ will always reign supreme in Levinson’s Baltimore stories. I caught ‘Liberty Heights’ a few years back, due to my interest in Joe Montegna. Who caught my attention as the chess prodigy’s dad in ‘Searching For Bobby Fischer’ and his work in Mamet’s ‘House Of Games’, Things Change’, ‘Homicide’ and CBS’s ‘Joan Of Arcadia’.

    The kids, Brody and Foster don’t actually take the lead, but are parts of a larger mosaic that involves families and friends against the middle class character that is Baltimore.

    Another excellent choice for an Overlooked Film, iluv!

  3. Levinson’s work in and about Baltimore also extended to the brilliant tv series HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, another milestone tough to improve on…though his partner, David Simon, sure gave it a shot, perhaps successfully, with THE CORNER and, of course, with THE WIRE. This definitely sounds like a fitting companion to DINER, and I think I need to see it.

  4. I’ve never heard about this one, so I guess it’s appropriate calling it an ‘Overlooked movie’ 🙂 Might have to check this one out.

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