Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Rispoli, Jeff Wahlberg, Forrest Goodluck, Michael Gandolfini, Kelli Berglund
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
After spending a considerable amount of time in the MCU, Tom Holland took a dark turn as a different type of Avenger in last year’s “The Devil All the Time” shedding his boyish charm for a solid mature performance. His transition to a leading dramatic actor continues with the help of his Marvel friends, directors Anthony and Joe Russo as the star of “Cherry” based on Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical 2017 novel. There are so many layers to the story that it feels like four films in one. It’s a coming-of-age romance that segues into a war drama that becomes a drug addiction tragedy that mutates into a heist film. Too much? Not in the hands of the Russo Brothers who take hold of the difficult and emotional material to deliver an epic film driven at the core by love.
In the hands of another director, "Cherry" could have become a melodramatic 90-minute love story that ends in tragedy, tossing out several aspects of Walker’s novel. The material deserves better and in the hands of the Russo Brothers, it gets the full monty. Divided into six chapters that begin in 2002 and end in 2019, each reflecting a different stage of life for the film’s title character, “Cherry” owes its success to Tom Holland who ages almost two decades over the course of the narrative. From an enamored teenager to a middle-aged convict, Holland pulls it off with flying colors perhaps because he’s an old soul trapped in a young body.
In the first chapter “When Life Was Beginning, I Saw You: 2002,” we meet our narrator Cherry (Holland) who will earn that nickname later in his life while fighting in the Iraq war as an Army medic. For now, the setting is Cleveland, where first love blooms on a Jesuit college campus as our protagonist meets the charming Emily (an excellent Ciara Bravo). They don’t hit it off from the start, he has a girlfriend for one, and their interactions are a bit awkward, but eventually, they become a couple.
When you're 18 years old you make choices without thinking about the consequences. When Emily tells Cherry out of the blue that she wants to go to school in Montreal, he responds “So what-- that’s it? We’re breaking up?” Her answer, “Well, we can’t exactly be together when we live in two different countries.” We later find out that Emily loved Cherry so much that it scared her. She really didn’t want to go to Canada. This is the defining moment that changes their lives forever.
A chain reaction of rash decisions commences that include Cherry dropping out of college and enlisting in the Army. Emily returns to apologize before he ships out and they quickly get married. Cherry goes to war, witnesses horrors in Iraq, becomes afflicted with PTSD, gets hooked on opioids, Emily gets strung out, and both of them become heroin junkies. When the drugs and money run out Cherry resorts to robbing banks and you can guess where the story goes from there.
“Cherry” is a tragic love story that efficiently establishes empathy for these two characters. Holland is mesmerizing, you can’t take your eyes off of him. And Bravo is fantastic as we watch her shed innocence and go from promising young college student to an addicted junkie barely hanging on to life. The Russo Brothers firmly establish a downward spiral based on a series of choices that harkens back to that moment when Emily informed Cherry that she was moving to Canada and he dropped out of college and joined the Army. One can imagine the promising life these two would have had if things had worked out differently.
After nearly a decade in the MCU producing some of the highest-grossing films of all time, Anthony and Joe Russo used their clout to bring “Cherry” to the screen with a budget out of grasp for most indie filmmakers but far below what the directors are used to. Yes, this is a character-driven film, but it's so polished that it resembles a big studio production. The war scenes, as expected, are at times breathtaking as if the Russos are striving for a Kubrick epic, but suddenly it’s over and the film moves into the character’s next chapter. The transition can be jarring.
Each chapter of “Cherry” resembles a different mini-movie, which is fine — it’s easy to connect the dots and it feels like you’re getting more bang for your buck — there is also a lot of humor in the film, some moments are laugh-out-loud funny. But the tone shifts, sometimes going from funny to sad in an instant, may prove to be unsettling for some moviegoers.
I’m hoping that Tom Holland remains on a trajectory similar to Robert Pattinson after the “Twilight” films, by taking chances on more adventurous roles. Of course, we all know that he’s the best web-slinger there ever was, but Holland is also a fine dramatic actor. Despite the various themes, long-running time, and the occasional rocky transition, “Cherry” is an ambitious undertaking by the Russo Brothers and an epic film that deserves an audience.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in select theaters. Opens in Houston on March 12th alongside its streaming premiere on Apple TV+