The premise of "Neo Ned" -- a male white supremacist and an African American woman with delusions she's Hitler meet in a mental facility and begin a tentative romance -- sounds more like the stuff of "Chappelle's Show" than a genuine drama. It is to the credit of writer Tim Boughn and director Van Fischer that the movie is as surprising and engaging as it is, but it is especially because of lead performers Jeremy Renner and Gabrielle Union that "Neo Ned" never succumbs to the hyperbolic self-parody that always seems to loom off screen.
From the moment their two characters meet, as both are being wrestled to the ground by orderlies, Union and Renner have a strange, offbeat chemistry that drives the film. Renner's part is perhaps more thankless, as he has a more direct journey from hapless neo-Nazi thinking to newfound tolerance, but Union owns the picture. She navigates the tricky twists of her character with skill and ease, veering from lunatic ravings to moments of lucidity, all tinged with fragility and a haunting self-awareness
There is nevertheless something soft and unformed about the film. Fischer seems more concerned with rushing his characters down the path of healing and redemption than exploring fully all the weird implications of his premise. It's a little rough around the edges, to be sure, but with such strong lead performances there is something irresistible in the film's audaciously straight-faced portrayal of such an unlikely relationship. It's easy to see why big-gun distribution execs would steer clear of something like this, which is much to the detriment of the bigger picture of film culture. Were the current state of distribution and exhibition not so dire, "Neo Ned" is exactly the kind of production -- scrappy, flawed and a little odd -- that should exemplify the very notion of "independent film."