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Francois Duhamel/Paramount Pictures

Tough to love

Movies | The Soloist captures truths about the homeless

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

Sometimes Hollywood does more than entertain. The Soloist is based on a Los Angeles homeless man, and it stays pretty close to the true life story. The film counts the cost of helping a seriously mentally ill homeless person.

The homeless man, Nathaniel Ayres (Jamie Foxx), is a gifted violin/cello player. He is drifting because of schizophrenia and broken family bonds. L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) writes a column about Ayres, after watching him play the violin on the sidewalk. Normally he would move on to the next story. But he's pulled back to Ayres, writes more columns and tries to help him.

But Ayres doesn't want anyone's help. He is mentally ill and has broken past relationships. He tests Lopez over and over, perhaps unconsciously trying to find out how much he really cares. Lopez gets frustrated that Ayres won't cooperate with any quick medical fixes. "You're never going to cure Nathaniel," says his editor and estranged wife Mary. "Just be his friend and show up." That was a good line of wisdom from Mary.

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Ayers and Lopez make small steps of progress, but this Hollywood version captures some tough truths about mental illness and the homeless. At one point the Los Angeles mayor reads the columns and promises $50 million to clean up the problem, but subsequent police raids on the homeless camps seem to suggest that governmentdirected utopian schemes can do more harm than good.

Yet the movie really doesn't offer a deep political message. What Hollywood got right is how personal friendships are crucial for the homeless mentally ill. The Soloist is not exactly entertaining, but it is educational. Anyone concerned about the homeless will want to see it. The book, written by Steve Lopez, is even better.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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