Leigh (Aunjanue Ellis) hasn’t been happy in her job, and her marriage to Phil (Hill Harper), for a while. When she finally quits her job, things don’t get any better, though, and Leigh seems even more lost than before. Until she just walks into a soup kitchen run by Jimmy (Scott Wolf) and decides to volunteer there. It gives her a purpose at first, and then she meets Ethan (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), one of the homeless guys whoe come to eat there. Leigh feels drawn to him and the freedom he represents, but when their relationship becomes an affair, things become very complicated.
The Volunteer is clear about being a film that is all about a woman finding back to herself by way of a homeless man, but just because the film knows that that’s the story it tells, didn’t make the instrumentalization of said homeless man any more comfortable for me. And so I remained at a distance to the film that was ultimately detrimental to my enjoyment of it.
The Volunteer is all about Leigh. Generally I like films that are about women and where men just aren’t as important, but in this case, the power balance was different: with Leigh being a well-off woman who volunteers at the soup kitchen and Ethan a client of said soup kitchen, the power was all in her court, despite the fact that she is female (and Black) and he is male (and white).
And so it was really uncomfortable for me to watch Leigh use Ethan to find herself (even if that isn’t what she set out to do). It would have been quite a different story if the film had realized that that’s what Leigh is doing and shown a little bit more of Ethan’s side of things. But the film discards Ethan as qickly as Leigh does after he fulfilled his purpose for her. That Ethan was a bit of a cliché who didn’t really get any depth didn’t help either.
Both Ellis and Moss-Bachrach play well and they have really good chemistry. I also really liked seeing Scott Wolf again (as chance would have it, I am just re-watching Party of Five. It was a coincidence though – I didn’t know he was in the film). And Mary Beth Hurt’s Donna is a scene stealer in her small supporting role – really funny.
But a good cast can’t make up for what I perceive as a central flaw in the storytelling. It is that flaw that really kept me from connecting with the characters and the story on an emotional level. In the end that meant that the film didn’t work for me.
Summarizing: didn’t come together for me.