Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Hanging out with incredibly talented and charismatic actor Jason Mitchell for almost 90 minutes can’t be all that bad – even if it’s directed by Sebastián Silva (CRYSTAL FAIRY & THE MAGICAL CACTUS), a.k.a. the king of meandering, freeform storytelling. At least with TYREL, a drama about a lone black guy attending a debased weekend-long getaway in the freezing Catskills, the indie auteur attempts to stoke social commentary within a raucous portrait of male camaraderie. True to form, however, it goes nowhere, as Silva is completely uninterested in delivering any sort of impactful poignancy.
Tyler (Mitchell) is aching to get away from his girlfriend and her sick mother in their cramped living quarters. So much so, he’s accompanying his work buddy Johnny (Christopher Abbott) on a weekend trip with a bunch of strangers. Johnny’s friend Nico (Nicolas Arze) has invited them and a bunch of other white dudes to booze it up at his remote home in the Catskills, all to celebrate birthday boy Pete (Caleb Landry Jones). While there, Tyler finds himself not only experiencing social anxiety, but peer pressure in a group he wouldn’t ever consider his peers.
It’s not that the audience doesn’t buy into why Tyler is there, or why he’d be friends with someone who’d put his pal in an uncomfortable situation with these strangers. The set-up explains this. His desperation to get away from his troubles is the catalyst – only different troubles arise instead. After a politically incorrect party game holds a mirror up to their white privilege (a racist game involving a famous movie line said with a “black accent”), Tyler is forced to go along to gain their acceptance. He sees the lone gay guy, Dylan (Roddy Bottum), is also willing to mock society’s political correctness, so he will too. Nevertheless, it’s a micro-aggression he’s forced to tolerate. When Tyler gets wasted and his wrestling match with Pete gets out of control, he feels the need to apologize to Nico. We can sense the reasons go deeper than mere politeness. He’s fighting the “angry black man” stereotype. When Alan (Michael Cera) co-opts Tyler’s do-rag, it’s akin to cultural appropriation. Yet throughout all this, Tyler willingly bears the brunt of these careless actions imposed on him by white people – and Silva fails to explore why.
Silva visually contextualizes Tyler’s angst in a fascinating manner. He occasionally utilizes fish-eye lens effect to squeeze more actors into a small, cramped space whenever the group dynamic becomes unfamiliar to Tyler, like at the rest stop when he first meets the party crew, or at the breakfast table when Eli (Michael Zegen) joins. Late in the film, when Tyler’s ill-advised escape to kindly neighbor Silvia’s (Ann Dowd) home doesn’t go as planned, his drunken perspective is there in the aesthetics.
Silva and his troupe keep the energy alive by keeping everything character-motivated, not plot-motivated. Abandoning any sense of a three-act story or character arcs doesn’t do this film any favors, though, but it’s admirable he gives his actors the creative freedom to collaborate. When everything builds towards combustion (whether that be external or internal), yet fails to bring such an emotional release, it’s frustrating for the characters and the audience. It’s territory left maddeningly unexplored. Instead of honing in on how these slights and passive-aggressive swipes affect his psyche, Silva’s more interested in giving more weight to the white antagonists’ debauchery, demonstrated by calling each other “motherf*cker” and “pussy” repeatedly, drinking, grab-assing and singing R.E.M. in chorus.
Mitchell is such a dynamic performer, he transcends any narrative short-comings. He’s vulnerable, authentic and totally at ease flexing with the ebbs and flows of the improv-driven antics. It feels like a blessing to see him play a normal guy who’s at his wits’ end with these jackasses. Even the simplicity of the scene where Tyler bonds with Pete’s dog Cosmo (the dog actor’s real name) is magical.
TYREL opens on December 5 in limited release.