'Antwone Fisher' holds no surprises and is better for it

There's a simplicity and heart to "Antwone Fisher," Denzel Washington's directing debut, that's extremely appealing; the emotional wallop of the movie sneaks up on you, despite its entirely predictable trajectory.

It's the story of a young man (Derek Luke, in his film debut) who recovers from a hellishly abusive childhood in foster care and a troubled stint in the Navy to find peace, success and family, with the help of an understanding naval psychiatrist (Washington).

Written by Fisher himself (he's now a screenwriter and a published poet), "Antwone Fisher" seems almost too miraculous to be true. The young man, in sessions with Dr. Davenport, at first reluctantly spills out details of his early life, shown to us in sharply acted but restrained flashbacks. Telling his story helps him, as does the love of a good woman (Joy Bryant), and by the end of the film everything is sorted out, even Dr. Davenport's marital problems.

At times, the movie seems to be going in a different direction — seeing Antwone rehearse his sentences before therapy sessions, I wondered if perhaps he would turn out to be making it all up, and Washington's noncommital "OK" occasionally sounded disbelieving.

But "Antwone Fisher" really is what it appears to be — and maybe that's what's difficult to take in. It's rare to see a movie that's so perfectly straightforward — even its opening credits are completely plain and simple — and skeptics may find themselves resisting a bit. But the naturalness of the performances, and the skill and ease with which Washington handles his cast, soon win out.

Luke has a near-impossible job for a film novice, but he pulls it off: He has to make us care about Antwone, even when he's being unlovable, and he has to make the audience believe that this young man has endured these hardships. It's a quiet performance, without a lot of emotion — Luke gradually pulls us in, without overt attempts to win us over. He's helped immensely by the sparkling Bryant, a former model whose sweetly likable presence seems to relax him. And Washington is meticulous in his portrait of a by-the-numbers military man.

"Antwone Fisher" is a heartfelt cry against the damage inflicted on children, and a ray of hope that some of them, like this one, can survive to find a home in the world. And it's a tribute to family — the squabbly but loving Thanksgiving dinner at Davenport's house, and the affectionate mob that finally embraces Antwone, fulfilling his dreams. It's a fine directing debut from an actor whose career has demonstrated that he knows the power of restraint.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

Movie review

"Antwone Fisher," with Derek Luke, Joy Bryant, Denzel Washington, Salli Richardson, Earl Billings, Viola Davis. Directed by Denzel Washington, from a screenplay by Antwone Fisher. 117 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence, language and mature thematic material involving abuse. Several theaters.