THIS touching and warm reminiscence of days past is to be applauded more for its intent than its content, given that it eschews the device of the nostalgia trip for a thoughtful observation on the mores of 1950s America.
In fact, as a straightforward piece of Americana it works exceptionally well, providing a snapshot of an era caught between the terrible conflicts of World War II and Vietnam – a period when change was imminent and all that existed was about to be swept away.
As the fourth feature-length vignette in Barry Levinson’s so-called ‘Baltimore series’ (because this and its three predecessors are set in said town), Liberty Heights is a compelling kaleidoscope.
The tale is universal – the first awkward steps through adolescence towards adulthood – yet it is all depicted against a threatening backdrop of gigantic social upheaval: the McCarthy witch-hunts, the atomic threat, civil rights.
Levinson bases his story around one Jewish family, the Kurtzmans, and the interactions of the various members as they move within their local community. Sons Van and Ben (Adrien Brody and Ben Foster) are discovering girls but find the ones they are most attracted to are either black or from a more exclusive, white Gentile strata of society.
Dad Nate (Joe Mantegna) runs a struggling burlesque club but is forced to prop it up with a numbers racket. When his scam begins unravelling he is forced to link up with a black drug dealer to make things pay.
Liberty Heights is a salute to that brief period before adulthood where anything in life is possible. What Levinson has achieved by setting this obviously personal tale in 1954, with all its attendant historical baggage, is an incisive yet gentle look at a lifestyle which is long past and which lies buried in the detritus of the decade which followed it.
He lays on the comedy stereotypes with a trowel, but deliberately. Jewish kids mutter darkly about how “everbody knows” negro youths are prodigiously endowed. A white boy asks a black girl if her father knows Cab Calloway. Children train for the threat of nuclear war by sitting with books on their heads to ward off the effects of radiation.
But while comedy bubbles away on the surface, its constant companion is pain and intolerance. Never preachy, Levinson nevertheless manages to invoke a retrospective yearning for tolerance.
It comes through the boys’ affection for their would-be girlfriends and what must be an accurate depiction of a time when suspicion flowed freely through minority communities and no-one was prepared to make the first move towards mutual integration.
There are fine performances throughout, but Brody and Rebekah Johnson stand out as the older boy obsessed with an aristocratic angel, and a black doctor’s daughter who finds affection with a Jewish kid with a Frank Sinatra fixation.
Perhaps the finest moment is an amazingly accurate recreation of a James Brown concert – a fleeting moment of inter-racial harmony at a time when swimming pools were still marked ‘No Jews, dogs or coloreds allowed’.