Unless you’re privileged enough to live in an actual bubble of sorts, it’s not out of the ordinary to hear some rumblings about how “the system” is broken. Now, what “the system” means and how its apparent brokenness may or may not manifest itself are inherently subjective concepts. What we have at hand here are two expressions of this feeling, along with some reactions to the respective system issues. First, there’s Sorry to Bother You, which discusses the exploitative nature of modern predatory capitalism, as well as tossing in a bit of racial politics for good measure. After that, there’s Leave No Trace, which tells the story of a veteran who reacts to his perception of a broken system by retreating from it. They’re two very different tales, but their underlying points, as vague as they are, are very similar.
So, when I first saw the trailer for Sorry to Bother You, I was immediately intrigued. I saw the basic story in that trailer: a down-on-his-luck schlub gets a job at a telemarketing firm. There, he wants to succeed, but is stymied at first. Thanks to some advice from a co-worker, he finds success by altering his sales approach – by speaking with a “white” affectation. He watches the money roll in.
I thought that was to be the long and short of it. Hoo-boy. NOPE. Now, I don’t wanna give much away, so I’m gonna haveta tiptoe about here, bear with me. So first there’s a layer of baseline worker exploitation. We see the call center workers get fed up with their conditions and the massive iniquities in quality of life between the peons downstairs and the “Power Callers” upstairs. Their anger boils over into surges in the direction of collective bargaining, union formation, and striking. Then there’s a layer of personal politics. We see the importance of principles boldly highlighted, as well as a harsh repudiation of acting against one’s principles. I also saw a side bit concerning how much one can subvert one’s principles in action so as to effect an outcome amenable to one’s principles, but it’s not as clear-cut as the other messages. Then there’s another layer, one that takes things decidedly off the rails in a way I never expected from the film, regardless of the things already shown. That’s all I’m willing to say, but, trust me, it’s wild.
While virtually the entire cast is solid, including Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Omari Hardwick, Steven Yuen, Danny Glover, and Armie Hammer (not to mention the voice work of David Cross, Patton Oswald, and the more surreptitious Lily James), it’s writer/director Boots Riley that really impresses here in his feature debut. He’s raucous without being actively ridiculous, stylized without sacrificing a measure of reality, and somehow insanely direct without sounding preachy. These skills are joined with the trained eye of cinematographer Doug Emmett (whose lens work you may remember from The Edge of Seventeen, Damsels in Distress, and Bachelorette, among others) and the effective editing of Terel Gibson (who has done cutting work on The D Train, We Are Your Friends, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Fighter) to forge a wacked-out vision of a broken system facing correction at the hands of those who have hitherto been exploited by it. Stanfield does his marketing not through the impersonal phone lines but by crashing into his customers’ lives; Thompson takes pride in her ever-changing array of homemade subversive earrings; and vivid colors clash with the constancy of everyday life and its foibles. It’s a sight to see, lemme tell ya, and the end result is a distaste for the currently prevailing way of the world and a desire to fuck shit up. This is focused anger and frustration channeled into a visually arresting and emotionally and intellectually affecting film. With a debut like this, one can only see bright vistas on Boots Riley’s horizon, and I eagerly await what he has to say next.
But while Riley is very clear about what system he’s challenging, the people behind Leave No Trace take a different tack.
Based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock (not to be confused with hip-hop legend Pete Rock), the film gives us a glimpse into the lives of veteran Will and his daugher, Tom. The two live off the land in an Oregon park, only occasionally venturing into the city for medication and supplies. When they’re found, though, they’re thrust into a system of welfare and whatnot that changes how they regularly operate.
Writer/director Debra Granik and co-writer Anne Rossellini, best known for the Jennifer Lawerence-launching Winter’s Bone (it’s on my list, I swear), aren’t overly forthcoming with details, like what exactly Will suffers from or how the pair has stayed off the radar for so long, we just know that Will is a veteran with some consequent mental issues and he’s done fairly well by his daughter to this point. Still, it’s very clear that the two are close, devoted to each other, and Will’s issues are spurring their rejection of the usual way of life. We see just how much Tom has learned from her unorthodox circumstances, both in the way of knowledge and in the way of inner strength and fortitude. In the absence of societal bonds, familial ones have grown with deep roots.
And for once, Ben Foster is allowed to actually spread his wings a little bit and so some actual acting. He’s been severely wasted in many of his previous outings, including Inferno, The Finest Hours, and X-Men: The Last Stand, and only relatively recently has the industry caught on to his talent, as evinced by turns in Hell or High Water and Hostiles. Here, Foster provides a powerfully subtle performance as a man with some harsh issues that he doesn’t give much voice to and a father striving to provide for his daughter in some harsh terrain. Holding her own against the seasoned veteran is young Thomasin McKenzie, who brings the right amount of inner stability and outward wonder to make Tom really pop.
Cinematographer Michael McDonough’s lenses take full advantage of the verdant surroundings: towering, mossy trees dominate most of the outdoor scenes, bathing the tiny family in shady green, while the rest of the world appears more cloudy, gray, and unforgiving. The film is mostly rather short on dialogue, allowing the natural grandeur and the actors’ interactions to convey the narrative, and the narrative is still rather powerful.
Though we’re never quite sure why he’s running from the system, but it is obvious that Will sees some inherent flaw in the usual system. He’s not comfortable being a part of our society, seemingly in any appreciable capacity, and his rebellion is removing himself and his daughter from its clutches. There is struggle involved here, and the positives society brings are lacking, but the resolve remains. It’s a fascinating look into a mind fed up with the system, even if we don’t fully understand the reasoning.
Either way you wanna see the machine raged against, there’s plenty to like and to learn to dislike. With the way things are going, it’s likely we will continue to see such stories, and if these are any indication, dark times can still bring some bright films. Being ’em on.