As it makes its theatrical debut today in NYC, LA and ATL, via AFFRM, here's a repost of my original review of the film…
I challenge any film lover to watch Andrew Dosunmu's stylized feature-film debut, Restless City, and not be captivated by Bradford Young's hypnotic cinematography. Even the filmmaker himself, during the Q&A that immediately followed the screening, tipped his hat to Young's efforts (he also shot Pariah by the way), turning what would otherwise have been a routine new-gen immigrant tale into much more compelling viewing.
It makes me wonder why more filmmakers don't insist on experimenting with images on screen… it is after all called the moving image.
Don't get me wrong, Restless City isn't all style with no substance. There's a solid story in there, though laconically told. A straightforward narrative that takes its time developing, and doesn't exactly scream its arrival. It's just not the aspect of the production that really sinks its hooks into you.
Dosunmu fully embraces the age-old "show don't tell" mantra of classical filmmaking.
That it's called Restless City is something of an oxymoron when compared to the film it describes – a misnomer that immediately suggests anxiety. My reaction during the screening was more blissfully meditative.
Restless City tells the story of young, nomadic Senegalese immigrant, Djbril (played by Sy Alassane), an aspiring musician, struggling to survive on the fringes of New York City. When he falls in love with a prostitute (Jamaican-born model/actress Nicole Grey) who works for Bekay, the local loan shark, he suddenly finds some much needed meaning and purpose to his otherwise aimless existence, forcing him to make decisions that eventually prove fatal.
This is New York, but not Woody Allen’s privileged New York, nor even Martin Scorcese's gritty mean streets, or the New York found in Spike Lee's joints. Dosunmu's New York has a magical, dreamlike quality to it; it's peaceful, despite the perceived harshness in the narrative that plays out on screen, as mostly working-class black immigrant men and women, with the weight of oppression on their backs, fed up and frustrated with the lot life has dealt them, resolve to do what they deem necessary for their own fulfillment, and that of others of significance to them; armed and eventually dangerous.
It's like a piece of heaven in hell. A rueful parable about fear and freedom that shares thematic similarities to other African films – for example, the well-documented rift between African tradition and modernity, the lure of the big city, dreams deferred, and more.
The film stomps the Horatio Alger myth that honest hard work can overcome poverty.
Its 2 young immigrant lovers, representative of generations of hungry dreamers, drawn to the city of lights, are alienated from their new society, seeking refuge in pockets, and imagine freedom far from the streets of their current individual predicaments; Djibrl's ever-present moped seemingly almost sure to play a part in their escape. The goal being to one day return to Africa, wealthier, to help support the families they left behind.
The cast is mostly unprofessional, and it shows, but yet it oddly works. That could be because the film itself seems to exist outside of time, we could say. It refuses to be easily boxed, combining influences as divergent as late Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene's realism, to the avant-garde. Its haunting soundtrack – part classical impressionistic, part Mbalax, part emo, part ambiance, and likely so many other disparate ingredients, adds to its ethereality. I liked the almost otherworldly quality about the film, and was practically forced to give myself over to this near-mystical universe Andrew creates.
And Nigerian-born, London-raised, New York/Lagos-based Dosunmu's fashion photographer roots certainly show. I’d fully expect his film work to be an extension of what he’s most well-versed in – photography. Not that Andrew doesn't grasp cinematic language. This isn’t a conventional film by any means, and I think anyone going into it should be fully aware of that fact. It is the film's style that defines it, and its strongest appeal; an acquired taste, I appreciate what I see are his attempts to disrupt the expected order of things. They may not even be conscious attempts – he doesn't come off as just some pretentious auteur. This is his way, as effortlessly expressed during the Q&A that followed the screening. And that’s part of what makes the film and filmmaker interesting.
It was a 2010 IFP Project Forum selection, as well as a 2010 Narrative Lab and Lab Fellow, along with fellow Sundance 2011 selections, Pariah and Kinyarwanda. So, it’s obviously in good company. However, of the 3, it'll likely be the toughest sell for interested distributors.
Keep in mind that AFFRM also released Kinyarwanda.