What people achieve is often defined by what others expect of them. Growing up in a poor neighborhood that few leave doesn’t typically lead to success, and the chance to follow a different path can be equally appealing and unattainable. For one young man, the need to change things as he saw them around him was motivation enough to do incredible things. Rob Peace is a heartfelt portrait of a man who knew he could do whatever he wanted if he applied himself and managed to accomplish a great deal in his unfortunately short life.
As a young child, Rob (Jelani Dacres) sees his father Skeet (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sent to prison for a double murder he swears he didn’t commit. Raised by his mother Jackie (Mary J. Blige), a teenage Rob (Chance K. Smith) gets creative about making money to fund legal appeals for his father. As a young adult (Jay Will), he heads to Yale where his scientific knowledge impresses his professors and gives him access to prestigious opportunities. That skill helps him with a side gig that serves to continue making the necessary money to keep him and his family afloat: chemically enhancing marijuana to make it even more potent and sellable to his many classmates.
Ejiofor returns to Sundance with his second directorial feature, following 2019’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. In some ways, this is a standard biopic with conventional dialogue. But the story at its heart is a legitimately interesting and compelling one that features an extraordinary protagonist. Among its most potent scenes is when Peace is working in a lab and responds aggressively to someone who questions his right to be there, not content to be talked down to by someone who thinks he doesn’t belong. And he earns it – he’s as resilient as he is resourceful, never backing down from a challenge.
Peace’s trajectory finds him always one step ahead, thinking about how he can accomplish more and what will be needed to do so. Each aspect of the story, including Skeet’s criminal case, Peace’s social life at Yale, and his immersion into the drug trade, is given equal weight, and having Peace portrayed by three different actors helps it feel like he’s been fostered in part by the audience. The film sees him grow up, as he says in voiceover, too fast, and he’s constantly torn in different directions and still manages to do more in just a few years than many watching will have done in their entire lives.
Ejiofor is no stranger to playing a long-suffering person treated poorly by the legal system following his Oscar-nominated performance in 12 Years a Slave. Here, he brings a charm that’s replaced almost immediately by anger once he’s behind bars. He makes a plea to the judge that the woman who identified him surely can’t be trusted and that he’s innocent, and while he celebrates the few minor victories that his son helps him achieve, he’s filled much more by a bitter resentment for his predicament. Ejiofor does a strong job of directing himself and also of ensuring that he doesn’t become the focus of a film that’s meant to be about a different generation of the family. Blige does well opposite him as another type of role model who also has her own issues with how Peace spends his time, and Camila Cabello is memorable as Rob’s girlfriend who pushes him to stay on the right path.
Much of the film’s weight rests on Will, whose most prominent credit to date is alongside Sylvester Stallone in the Paramount+ TV series Tulsa King. He gets a great start from Dacres and Smith, both making impressive feature film debuts, and carries it from there with an endearing performance of someone who knows he can do great things and isn’t going to be told by anyone where he has to stop. It’s a compelling turn and a fitting tribute to the real Peace, who surely would be doing extraordinary things if he was still alive today.
Rob Peace makes its world premiere in the Premieres section at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.