The term “indie” is slapped on seemingly every non-corporate film of the last five or ten years. In America’s lexicon, films with a $15,000,000 budgets from multiple small production companies (like Ex Machina and Under the Skin) proudly call themselves indie and are hailed as “independent gems.” Distributed American indie cinema seems to revolve around either A24 or current releases by once independent filmmakers (e.g. Jim Jarmusch, the Duplass brothers, Claire Denis) and because of this, has become increasingly stale. The once diverse world of American indie is currently controlled by a few huge voices — those voices preaching opposition to the studio system, yet oddly creating their own rigid limitations for independent filmmakers.
For this reason, it feels right that the film to rejuvenate the independent film scene is Sorry to Bother You, particularly because just about every limited release film seems molded by the mumblecore movement and the success of Manchester by the Sea. The film is bold and brash, with newbie director and political rapper Boots Riley focusing more on what he can do with the filmic medium than how to craft a perfectly told tale.
Sorry to Bother You is best experienced blindly, but for those who want a sneak peak, the film follows Oakland native Cassius Green (Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield) as he enters the world of telemarketing. In order to propel himself up the corporate ladder, he finds the use of his “white voice” and ends up face to face with the horrors of capitalist America. Riley focuses as much on race as he does on class, and capital, and unions, and technology, essentially examining the entire American system from its core. The 100-minute movie descends into what one can only hope is a surrealist story, which is best experienced when one has no idea what will come next.
The film itself is equal parts incredible and questionable — with sloppy pacing and slightly misogynistic representation — yet it is undeniably refreshing. Riley, a complete unknown in the film industry, unveils his unique style of storytelling with no-holds-barred; he obviously knows the rules of film like the back of his hand, yet he chooses to subvert (almost) every narrative convention possible. At every opportunity, the director attempts something new: sometimes, it’s a new way of showing time has passed, and sometimes, it’s changing how the characters interact with the world. Sorry to Bother You oozes with creativity.
As mentioned before, however, the movie is not without its faults. With so many elements at play, Riley has some trouble balancing the film; by the end, every moment without absurdity feels misplaced. There is also Tessa Thompson’s character Detroit. Despite having the best performance in the film, Detroit is a bland character who rarely elevates above love interest clichés. She’s one of the only female characters who speak, yet when she speaks, she says little of importance.
Regardless of the film’s weaknesses, though, it still is a breath of fresh air. Boots Riley created much-needed excitement in American independent cinema and cemented his voice in the country’s zeitgeist. This is one of those films that we will look back upon in the future and say, “this is where it started.”