Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal
Amid one of the ugliest and least substantial election seasons imaginable, a film like Grassroots isn't merely welcome—it's desperately needed. This is a thoroughly engaging film as much about honor as fighting city hall, and in a time of understandable cynicism about the political process, the film's idealism counts as a kind of daring.
Based "mostly" on a true story from 2001, Grassroots follows the longshot candidacy of Seattle city council hopeful Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore), a writer for an indie publication who correctly decides that this qualifies him for elected office, and runs on a platform of expanding the city's public transit and opposing incumbent Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer). Jason Biggs, displaying unexpected gifts by eschewing typecast roles, stars as a campaign manager who accepts the job grudgingly but becomes a believer.
The film is essentially an underdog sports movie for political junkies, elevated by dialogue that is both realistic and poetic (the screenplay is by Gyllenhaal and Justin Rhodes, adapting Phil Campbell's nonfiction book), and by a good eye for details: Cogswell only owns one suit; a rally is double-booked with a heavy metal band.
This extends beyond the main cast. Lauren Ambrose as Biggs' girlfriend is seen realistically, skeptical of the campaign but willing to be flexible. Ambrose is almost ludicrously appealing, but its Cedric the Entertainer who is the standout, convincing as both a consummate politician and man realizing how much his ideals have been eroded by compromising. It's a revelatory performance, though the film never quite makes it clear if he's legitimately corrupt or just the establishment and opposition.
More than who wins, Grassroots is about how democracy needs challengers to the status quo, and about conducting onesself with honor in politics. It's the right message for this time, enough to temporarily cancel out the inane screams from the news.
Opens July 13 at the Village East