This is a fairly entertaining film despite the fact that it's often delicately balanced above the deep and dangerous precipice known as melodrama. While somewhat similar to "A Thousand Acres," the other recent film that shows a family falling apart after it's beset with problems and crises, this feature manages to avoid completely falling into that melodrama. This is because the problems aren't quite so numerous, and the people don't react to them as if it were the end of the world. Like that film, this one features an impressive and talented cast, and most everyone delivers standout performances. "Soul Food" also presents an African American family in a positive light, something not often seen in today's movies. While there are familial problems -- some of them big -- the message is about a family getting its strength through unity and that if they stick together, they can get through those problems. The drama is played out fairly well although nothing really new is presented that we haven't seen in other similar genre pieces. Marriages are strained, an affair occurs, an illness strikes, and so on, but these elements, while not coming as a surprise by any means, still have a fresh feel to them. Perhaps that can be attributed to writer/director George Tillman Jr. who based some of this production on experiences when he was growing up in the Midwest. What also helps is that the performers perfectly inhabit their characters, and the collective cast gives a fresh spin to the often worn plot points. With such an impressive cast, it's often hard to single out performances, but we have to put young Brandon Hammond in the spotlight. His character is innocent, yet wise, and his voice-over narration isn't obtrusive, which is often the case anytime that dramatic device is used.
There are some flaws in the story's logic, and the main one involves a sequence where Teri believes that Lem has beaten Bird (he hasn't). In retaliation, she calls a distant convict cousin (how come he wasn't invited to dinner?) to go rough up Lem, who of course pulls his gun and is then sent back to prison. It's extremely doubtful that a successful trial lawyer would call a thug to do her dirty work. It's just as unlikely that Lem, who's trying to be as straight at possible, would have a gun (an obvious parole violation), let alone be carrying it in a bar. Dramatically it all works perfectly as it pulls all of the right strings, and granted it's not a huge complaint, but it's still valid. Faults like that and the generally predictable plot are big drawbacks to what could have been a much better film. That's a shame since there are some great performances to be found here. As it stands, we give "Soul Food" a 6 out of 10.