Built to Spill

Acting up: Viola Davis in 'The Architect'

Acting up: Viola Davis in 'The Architect'

The actress Viola Davis has carved, handsome features and a tenacious stare that brooks no inattention. Though Davis's implacable integrity has for the most part saved her from the hooker-in-the-'hood roles that confine so many black actresses, she has yet to climb out of the prison of dignified maids and resilient inner-city mothers, except in the three movies she's made with Steven Soderbergh. She was the quietly observant voice of wisdom as Julianne Moore's housekeeper in Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven. She played 50 Cent's grandmother in Jim Sheridan's Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Her agonized performance in Denzel Washington's Antwone Fisher carried the movie. One can imagine this versatile actress in a host of roles, but in her umpteenth turn as a strong ghetto mother, she is the life force that lifts Matt Tauber's workaday movie The Architect into an experience to savor.

An urban drama about liberal complacency meeting its match, The Architect places Davis front and center as Tonya Neeley, a community activist on Chicago's south side who's trying to gather enough signatures to get her ratty housing project torn down and rebuilt. Degraded by poverty, unemployment, and social collapse, the locals range from indifferent to hostile, while drug-dealing gangbangers who treat the neighborhood as their corporate headquarters menace Tonya with direct threats. Desperate for help, she shows up in the college classroom of Leo Waters (the excellent Anthony LaPaglia), the distinguished architect who designed the projects back in the idealistic '60s, and asks him to sign her petition.

Where Tonya is passionate, Leo is evasive and detached. He discreetly curls his lip at Tonya's eager insistence that Oprah is one of her signatories and seizes the occasion to lecture from a great height about the influence of Le Corbusier on the buildings he designed for that conveniently removed abstraction, the masses. "Our home," says Tonya quietly. "My design," he counters with oafish vanity.

Refusing to sign, Leo retreats to his own sleek home, where his wife and two children are choking on middle-class malaise, just as surely as Tonya's family is being worn to the quick by deprivation and despair. Even when he offers to revise his original designs, Tonya refuses to let him off the hook of radical rather than cosmetic change. It's only when the children of both families venture off of home turf and fan out across the city, scaling all manner of geographical, social, and psychological barriers, that Leo is forced off his ass and out of his ivory tower.

Adapted by Tauber from a stage play by Scottish playwright David Greig, The Architect contains a macro theme about the liberal bourgeoisie's unwillingness to face up to the unintended consequences of its social policies. The film's micro theme is parallel family collapse. Where Leo hides from his emotional manhandling of his floundering kids (Hayden Panettiere and Sebastian Stan) and the festering mess of his marriage to a woman (Isabella Rossellini) who tries to drown her unhappiness in good housekeeping, Tonya struggles with grief for her lost son and mixed feelings about sending her daughter (Serena Reeder) to live in a wealthy black home.

Morally and politically irreproachable, the movie is dramatically dull and overly wedded to its tidy dual structure. Straining to avoid stereotypicality, Tauber traffics instead in equally reductive inversions: a black inner-city boy who listens to country music and reads Tolstoy, a gangbanger with a soft interior, a noble truck driver. Still, The Architect is an affecting study in the private loneliness and strength of Tonya, a woman who understands her own motives only imperfectly but presses ahead anyway. It isn't so much what she says or does that brings Leo to self-awareness, but her belief in her mission, and her refusal to be fobbed off. To that challenge, Davis brings her steady gaze and her unshakable dignity. She's a joy to behold.