Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Music Box Films releases the film on Friday, August 23.
In the pantheon of movies set within the constraints of a single, hectic day — from “Dog Day Afternoon” to “Dazed and Confused” — “Give Me Liberty” earns points for cramming its plot with new twists every step of the way. The plight of young Russian-American Vic (newcomer Chris Galust) as he speeds around Milwaukee in a handicapped transport and juggles a series of setbacks, unfolds through tangled complications that collapse into chaos every few minutes. But even as that process grows exhausting across two packed hours, it’s a dizzying blast to watch Vic’s day fall apart again and again, as he struggles to mine meaning from the chaos.
Director Kirill Mikhanovsky’s sophomore effort is a breathless dark comedy that takes occasional tragic and bittersweet detours as it maps out the soft-spoken Vic’s hectic world. It doesn’t take long for Vic’s journey to become an overwhelming, Kafkaesque descent into the madness of a modern American town. Vic’s seemingly straightforward routine, as he speeds his van through Milwaukee’s narrow streets, becomes a vehicle for exploring the city’s complex immigrant communities, racial tensions, and working-class frustrations. It’s a lot to take in, but Mikhanovsky doesn’t hesitate to keep barreling forward, and it’s an impressive gamble even when it runs out of gas.
The movie’s handheld camerawork and jittery editing style follows the driver as he zips from one client to the next: After dropping off an angry, obese middle-aged man who can’t stop shouting at the world, Vic picks up a young mentally challenged woman with an Elvis fixation; from there, a detour to the apartment Vic shares with his grandfather careens out of control when Vic discovers the old man has nearly burned the place down with his bad cooking skills. And just when he’s stabilized that mess, Vic encounters his father’s elderly Russian peers in the lobby, who need a lift to a funeral. Cue the guilt trip.
He also encounters the deceased woman’s nephew, a haughty young man named Dima (Maksim Stoyanov) who discovers his aunt’s passing just as the rest of the building hits Vic up for a ride. From there, Vic’s back on the road with a dozen new passengers, as they spout esoteric Russian wisdom and sing folk songs accompanied by a clunky accordion, while Dima decides to become Vic’s partner-in-crime to ensure he doesn’t fall too far off-schedule. Needless to say, Dima’s not the most reliable partner-in-crime.
All of this happens before the end of the movie’s busy first act, which includes the addition of two more handicapped passengers to Vic’s overcrowded van, one of whom injects fresh energy into the proceedings just as they’ve grown tiresome: Tracy (Lauren “Lolo” Spencer), a young woman with ALS from the African-American side of town, who naturally inflames ugly tensions in the vehicle as soon as the Russians take note. At first, Tracy’s blend of anger and confusion over the conditions of her transport become a blaring punchline, but with time, her own dramas take center stage as Vic and Dima become more invested in her needs. They just have to stop at the funeral first. And then break into an apartment. And then…this comedic thriller zips from slapstick screw-ups to deafening shouting matches and tender asides so easily that every scene is enhanced by unpredictability.
With its blend of English and Russian speeding through the screenplay as fast as Vic hits the pedal, “Give Me Liberty” transforms into a dense cinematic essay on segregation and intergenerational conflicts. Yet even as it stuffs these ideas into messy, tangential monologues — a rambling eulogy here, an angry tirade there — this sometimes wearying movie shows a considerable effort to keep its entertainment value in check. As Tracy, Spencer (a real-life ALS awareness activist) is a genuine breakout with many endearing moments as she shifts from resenting Vic for slowing down her routine to revealing her softer side. Meanwhile, Stoyanov’s troublemaking Dima is the ultimate prankster with a heart of gold. Their chemistry is a welcome inevitability.
The movie’s energetic style harkens back to Milos Forman’s early Czech New Wave movies (think “Loves of a Blonde” with a bigger ensemble), and the approach is a welcome contrast to so many more straightforward American indies fixated on the plights of young men. (Only the Safdie brothers, whose gritty New York dramas epitomize the school of jittery energy Mikhanovsky clearly aspires for, regularly break the mold.) While “Give Me Liberty” opens by framing the various dramas as centered on Vic’s attempts to keep his job, with time he becomes a side player in other people’s lives as it becomes clear that nobody’s individual problems tell the full story.
“Give Me Liberty” shows no sign of compromise across its sprawling running time, and it gets frustrating to keep track of the many dangling plot threads amid so many sudden turns. Just when the story appears to wrap up, there’s a whole chapter for the evening, including a disturbing black-and-white sequence set in the throes of a Black Lives Matter protest. Despite the movie’s restless formalism and many tangled developments, it arrives at a fairly basic plea for empathy, as Vic learns to accept more important values than whether or not he can do his job right. By the time it gets there, however, Mikhanovsky has crafted such an immersive scenario that the Hallmark-ready message sticks.
The Russian-born Mikhanovsky, whose naturalistic debut feature “Fish Dreams” took place in a Brazilian fishing village, couldn’t have chosen a more different setting for his followup. Nevertheless, both movies focus on individuals trapped by the socioeconomic constraints of their surroundings, and lost in minuscule dramas that have little bearing on their futures. It’s thrilling to watch a filmmaker work overtime to explore what it means to get lost in the moment, lose track of the bigger picture, and then discover it all over again. By the end of “Give Me Liberty,” Vic hasn’t resolved all his problems, but there’s always the next day.
“Give Me Liberty” premiered in the NEXT section at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.