[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

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.