[REVIEW] ‘THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE’ delivers darkly funny story about wrestling with masculinity

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE

Rated R, 104 minutes.
Director: Riley Stearns
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Phillip Andre Botello, David Zellner and Leland Orser

AUSTIN – There’s a moment in Riley Stearns’ THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE when Jesse Eisenberg’s timid character, Casey Davies, is walking down the street after leaving a grocery store to get some dog food for his German Daschund. He overhears a group of bikers approaching him, and he begins to run, dropping his dog’s food along the way. But the mysterious group catches up with him and savagely beats him for no apparent reason other than to prey on the “weak.”

The scene made me reflect on my youth when I got into fights with my baseball teammates, or when my coach would test my emotions to see if I could store them away like “a man is supposed to do.” They would yell, “Get over it,” or “Stop being a sissy!”

As a young man who wrestled with the idea of what it means to be a man, Stearns’ new film hits home, but it also left me in stitches. It’s an exceptionally crafted feature that uses truth to build a darkly funny comedy around it. I found myself laughing from start to finish while also deeply identifying with Eisenberg’s Casey.

In the film, Casey decides to restore his dignity by enlisting in a local dojo run by the enigmatic Sensei (a terrific Alessandro Nivola). This isn’t an immediately intense kind of sensei like Martin Kove’s ex-special forces instructor from the original KARATE KID. Instead, Nivola uses his manipulative ways to lure people in like a Venus flytrap. He encourages his class to “be as masculine as possible” and listen to death metal. His philosophy certainly captures the interest of Casey, who completely lives it to hilarious results.

Writer-director Riley Stearns. Photo by Chance Maggard / Fresh Fiction.

Casey climbs his way up the ladder, eventually earning himself a yellow belt. He becomes so proud that he creates a yellow leather belt so he can wear it all the time. It gives him confidence and makes him feel tough, as seen in one sequence when Casey decides to stand up against his accounting boss and deadbeat work colleagues who never turn down the chance to make him feel awkward as he makes his morning coffee in the break room.

In any other film, all these scenes would focus strictly on the dramatic side. While THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE has its real moments – whether it’s a character like Imogen Poots’ Anna trying to prove that she’s worth more than her brown-belt status, or Casey trying to defuse a confrontation he has with a man who dinged his car door in a parking lot – bursts of comedy sneak up on the audience. It feels wrong to laugh at them, but you can’t help it when the lines are delivered in such a matter-of-fact way. It brings to mind works such as Yorgos Lanthimos’ THE LOBSTER, or Paul Thomas Anderson’s INHERENT VICE. You won’t be able to control yourself because everyone delivers it as straight as possible.

THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE throws all the right punches and has just about everything you could want from a film experience. It’s unpredictable, offbeat and laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s most impressive facet is what’s written between the lines. It manages to explore the pressures society puts on us — and the pressure we put on ourselves. There’s plenty to talk about and lots to enjoy.

Grade: A-

THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE premiered at South by Southwest on March 10. Encore screenings on March 12 at 11 a.m. and March 15 at 7:45 p.m. For all ticket and screening information, visit sxsw.com. Bleecker Street to release the film on July 12.

Our interview with writer-director Riley Stearns at SXSW 2019:

Official Trailer:

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.