Movie Review: ‘DEAR DICTATOR’ rises to the occasion, but stumbles in its delivery

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

DEAR DICTATOR

Not rated, 90 minutes.
Director: Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse
Cast: Odeya RushMichael CaineKatie HolmesSeth Green and Jason Biggs

It’s not a huge secret that growing up as a teenager can be drastically difficult in certain situations or cultures. It’s also not a secret that Hollywood loves to churn out tales of misguided youth or those going against the grain to achieve self-worth. Sometimes, it can be a huge hit, like LADY BIRD or the high school works of John Hughes. In fact, there have been so many high school movies that it can be considered its own genre, as evidenced by Robert Bulman’s work HOLLYWOOD GOES TO HIGH SCHOOL.

One of the newer entries to this genre/subgenre is DEAR DICTATOR. Coming from a blacklisted script written during the Bush administration, the film focuses on high schooler Tatiana (Odeya Rush) as she wades through the existential crisis that is her teenage life. When her teacher (Jason Biggs) assigns them to write to a person that inspires them. She writes to known dictator Anton Vincent (Michael Caine) and they become pen pals. Only when his country attempts to overthrow him, he flees to the U.S. to hideout in her garage.

The movie definitely brings a message of rebellion, with the opening credits establishing a punk rock vibe as The Circle Jerks’ “Coup D’état” blasts away. Tatiana likes to be a rebel, wearing the classic motif of army jackets, jack boots, and shocking everyone that represents oppression, like her teachers or the popular girls known as Slushes.

However, the movie takes an interesting swerve as Anton enters her home, as he uses tactics on her behalf that makes her be seen as an oppressor. The American romanticism of certain historical figures coming to a harsh reality when realizing their heroes are monsters.

Michael Caine and Odeya Rush star in ‘DEAR DICTATOR.’ Courtesy of Cinedigm Entertainment Group.

Unfortunately, DEAR DICTATOR tends to veer off course throughout the movie. Written and directed by the husband and wife team of Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, the story never really goes full-on satire, and, by the time the third act starts, it plays everything a little too safe. They give everyone some sort of redemption, killing the sort of dark humor that would be the exclamation point.

Much like Tatiana, it can be too on the nose with trying to be individualistic, such as a weird throwaway side story with her mom’s (Katie Holmes) affair with her odd boss (Seth Green) that made the story fall flat within the first 20 minutes. There is already something individual about the story, there just needs to be better execution. It’s a very interesting premise, the main character is a female who isn’t making decisions based on puppy love, and who doesn’t love Michael Caine?

As Bulman said in his book, “A bit of independence, nonconformity, and rebellion is seen as healthy for the developing middle-class adolescent.” DEAR DICTATOR certainly promotes this stance, but it does have a confusing identity crisis. It’s oddly endearing, but doesn’t adhere to the punk rock vibe. To paraphrase Refused, it’s better to be forgotten, than remembered for giving in.

[GRADE: C]

DEAR DICTATOR opens Friday (3/16) in select markets, and will also release on Video On Demand. Check your local listings.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.