Philadelphia-raised Mark Webber has proven himself to be an earnest and quietly edgy presence both before and behind the camera. He’s appeared in films for similarly edgy directors, ranging from Steve Buscemi (2000’s Animal Factory) to Gus Van Sant (Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, coming in 2018). But he’s perhaps most effective as director and writer of his own material. Webber's newest film, Flesh and Blood, screened October 21 at the Philadelphia Film Festival.
From its first frame to its last, Webber, his cinematographer Patrice Lucien Cochet, a cast of family members (including his mother, Cheri Honkala, cofounder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and Jill Stein’s 2012 Green Party presidential running mate), and a battered but proud North Philadelphia combine to create a hyper-realistic staged and scripted mix of documentary and narrative. The end result is slice-of-life “reality cinema” (Webber’s term) that crisscrosses Webber’s and Honkala’s lives and those of their extended family. Blips of fictional scenes move the story to a denouement that's both heartening and tragic.
Webber plays Mark, a street kid turned ragged adult (Honkala was initially a homeless single mother) who turned to crime and spent time in the joint. The real-life Webber has never been to prison, but his childhood memories of homelessness and what he considers his mother’s reckless behavior (as depicted in a conflict from Flesh and Blood’s second act) imprison him.
Upon returning home, Mark returns to the North Philly of his youth, where he stays with his mom (Honkala’s real house, where she currently lives) and stepbrother Guillermo Santos, a whip-smart 13-year-old with Asperger Syndrome. That the brothers’ lives intersect, even with Mark spending five years in stir, is what truly drives the film. Their mother is the axis upon which this true-life/scripted drama turns.
Both Mark and Guillermo are estranged from fathers whose lives on the street made them inaccessible to their sons. Before film’s end, however, each will meet his respective father (both of them onetime hard-line heroin users), only to find each man at a fatal crossroads.
The content of Flesh and Blood may be scripted, but its action is such thinly veiled reality that the bounce back and forth is both disconcerting and awe-inspiring. What makes the film most remarkable is Webber and Cochet’s joint use of North Philly as another character. It’s a bruised and tattered area, far from gentrification, but Webber's insider knowledge allows him to depict the look and feel of hard life under the El while bathing it in a mood-swinging vitality that gives the working-class neighborhood its rightful nobility.