If you’re someone who can hear a poem and understand its meaning, props to you. I am not that person, nor will I pretend to be. But I am someone who appreciates superb acting, a passionate script, and a unique cinematic experience.

Howl uses those three elements through the documentation of poet Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) and his poem Howl, which incidentally is also in three parts. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman take you on a cinematic journey from the crowded club where Ginsberg performs the poem for the first time, to Ginsberg’s living room as he smokes his way through the events that lead him to Howl, and lastly to the infamous court case surrounding obscenity. Each piece is depicted in a different thematic style, ensuring the viewer never gets lost in the mix.

Franco is superb as Ginsberg, which is apparent the moment he performs the poem in the club. The passion he exudes from the words makes you feel like Ginsberg stands before the audience, reciting his work; Franco really takes the poem and owns the words his character labored and keyed over the typewriter to create. There is also an animation scene to accompany the words. At first, I found this very unsettling as it didn’t mesh well with the film, but once I let Ginsberg’s stanzas wash over me, I found myself appreciating these scenes as they conveyed the message of the poem.

Once in Ginsberg’s living room, you learn of his relationships with authors and poets Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott) and Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi). These explorations into Ginsberg’s past were fascinating and make you feel invested in both Ginsberg as a person and his work. I would like to know how many cigarettes Franco smoked total during these scenes as he has one with every breath he takes.

The courtroom drama around the poem is equally enticing to the viewer. Hearing literary critics and experts (Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams) critique Ginsberg’s work is pretty comical. Each witness on the stand will make you sit back and really think about the importance and need of free speech through their critiques. The lawyers on the case, Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) and Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm), add more of a bonus to the courtroom scene through their commentary. And I believe Jon Hamm should have been a man in the 1950s/1960s.

I really enjoyed the story line of Ginsberg’s partner, Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit, from Gossip Girl fame). Orlovsky was very reminiscent of Milk’s Scott Smith (also played by James Franco), the supporting lover who takes a back seat at times in the name of art, or politics.

While the film gets weighed down at certain portions, and gets oddly bizarre during the animated scenes, the acting is flawless. Each actor owns the screen when they speak, something few casts manage to accomplish.

Hanna Soltys is a green tea drinker and film critic living in Chicago.

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