In this true life narrative, Chris Gardner’s (Will Smith) life takes a turn for the worst when he blows all of his family’s savings on a bunch of bone density scanners that are touted as the next big thing in medicine. Needless to say, the uptake is slow. As bills and rent pile up, Chris’s long-suffering wife, Linda (Thandie Newton) grows tired of his get rich quick schemes and worries that their son, Christopher Jr. (Jaden Smith), isn’t getting what he needs. As the marriage falls apart and Linda makes a tough decision, Chris is left to deal with a harrowing year of financial ups and downs. We follow him as he balances fatherhood, finances, heartbreak and the pursuit of happiness for him and his young son.
When it rains, it pours. That’s the case for down on his luck father, Chris Gardner. We enter his story when things are already rocky between him and his wife Linda, who works as a hotel maid. Chris comes off as a good man who makes some desperate decisions, and it’s painful to watch. His desire to see his family financially secure leads to his purchase of many clunky, hard to sell bone density scanners. There’s a clear tension that’s displayed very effectively by the couple. The film brings in hard, real life aspects such as separation and divorce, which is very relatable given our times.
It culminates in Linda (Thandie Newton) walking away from her failed marriage, and her little son, to look for greener pastures. Overnight, Chris has become a single father. But life throws another curveball when his financial choices catch up with him. He’s evicted and his car is taken away. With nowhere else to go, Chris and his son Christopher Jr. begin a complicated, painful life as homelessness drifts in.
This film doesn’t hold back. One of the most uncomfortable moments comes when Chris and his son must spend the night in a train station. If you’re not weeping along with the frustrated protagonist, then you must not be human. He also deals with his son’s growing questions about their dynamic. When Christopher Jr. asks if his mom left because of him, it brings home the confusion that children often feel in these situations.
But there is hope. Amidst the deep trials, Chris is still a brilliant man. It’s a chance encounter in a taxi with a prominent figure at the stock brokerage firm, Dean Witter, that gives him and the audience some reprise. But it’s not easy. As Chris tells his son, “You want something, you go get it. Period”.
The screenplay is an adaptation from the true-life bestselling memoir of the same name by Chris Gardner and Quincy Troupe. It’s crazy to think that one human could endure such suffering but the adaptation delivers on every level. Adapted by screenwriter Steven Conrad, this film takes on the whimsical, hopeful tone that Conrad has come to be known for. Conrad brings great emotionally punching dialogue mixed with motivational gusto to keep the balance of the script throughout the film.
Conrad has a knack for adapting prose into screen narrative, having done the same for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty & Wonder. Though Conrad does exercise some liberties with the timeline of the events in Chris’s original memoir, he does so with nuance and carefulness.
Characters and acting
Chris Gardner propels this story forward and it’s Will Smith’s portrayal of the titular lead that delivers everything. We can’t help but root for the father. It’s reported that the real Chris was skeptical when Smith was first cast, but Will gave a brilliant, emotionally moving performance that convinced him otherwise. This performance got Smith a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination.
It seems talent is in the bloodline. Playing Christopher Jr. is little Jaden Smith, Will’s son. This was his first ever acting role and he blew us away with his range. Christopher Jr. is adorable but beyond that, he’s convincing as a young child who encourages and challenges his father to do better. Though Linda, who is played by Thandie Newton, isn’t in the film for long, she still leaves her mark. Her frustrated, strained eyes are enough to give testimony to the difficult situation.
Music and cinematography
Andrea Guerra composed this film’s score, so it’s no wonder the music has the perfect balance of emotional tone and whimsy. He’s scored films like Hotel Rwanda, which explains the grounded musical choices such as Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and the vocally enriched classic, “Lord, Don’t Move The Mountain” by Mahalia Jackson.
The film’s cinematography matches its setting. Given that the story takes place in 1981’s San Francisco, director Gabriele Muccino worked with award winning cinematographer Phedon Papamicheal to set the stage in terms of accurate wardrobe, vehicles and everyday visual references.
There’s a lot to unpack in Chris Gardner’s life story, but this film balances sweet and highly dramatized moments with beautiful storytelling and a satisfying ending for the audience. If you’re looking for a reflective, faith building film to cry to, this is it.