A real groaner masquerading as some kind of fascinating woke thriller.
Director Sebastián Silva has carved a little niche for himself in the indie film world, churning out mildly charming curios, generally featuring Michael Cera being various permutations of himself. His latest. Tyrel, shifts gears somewhat, channeling Get Out with its cringe-worthy tale of acute racial discomfort. But this isn’t a horror thriller. It’s just an accurately observed slice of life that goes absolutely nowhere.
Though the film is lean, its short run time still feels too long a proposition for its simplistic premise. Tyrel follows Tyler (Jason Mitchell), a young black man tagging along with his friend Johnny (Christopher Abbott) to a weekend-long birthday party at a cabin in the Catskills. Tyler is the only black man in a group of white dudes, including the aforementioned Cera (as some kind of eccentric trust-fund kid who arrives in a fucking mask) and Get Out supporting player Caleb Landry Jones as birthday boy Pete. Tyler has to navigate a foreign friend group and all its interpersonal intricacies while tolerating a veritable smorgasbord of racial microaggressions, all while trying to keep his cool.
But that’s it. The fact that Jones is basically playing the same kind of character he played in Jordan Peele’s film leaves the audience wondering for a spell whether or not a more explicit genre element will present itself, but it never does. This is a straightforward character study that doesn’t do much studying. It’s an exhaustive and true-to-life portrait of a very specific kind of social discomfort, stretched out over the course of a feature and with no useful or dramatic insight. It’s at once quietly impressive and completely unnecessary.
For a non-black viewer that has never been in this kind of situation, the movie functions as a mild comedy with a heavy awkward factor, like an experimental British television series or an overlong YouTube sketch. It doesn’t challenge the viewer enough to force the kind of artsy, liberal bro character skewered in the film to question himself or his interactions, should he inevitably catch this on Netflix some night. If, God forbid, you are a black viewer who has, on more than one occasion, been in this situation, there is nothing to gleam from the experience of watching this movie.
Silva and his talented cast should get a mild pat on the back for nailing this hyper-specific tone, down to uncomfortable conversational details and the unique dread associated with being black in white spaces, but seeing as how the film goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing save for sustaining such malicious unease, it’s hard to consider the film a success. Like, who the fuck is this movie even for? As another sterling notch in Mitchell’s belt as one of the most compelling and versatile performers working today, it’s a nice little calling card, but beyond that, what is the point?
If you got trapped in an elevator a couple of times and developed a rare kind of claustrophobia from the event, would you really want to watch a movie that perfectly captured that awful experience? Not a thriller or a genre exercise dramatizing and expanding upon that experience, but a note-for-note distillation of that unsavory sense memory. Doubtful, right? Well, how much worse would that film be if it was actually developed exclusively for elevator repairmen to watch as motivation to better perform their job duties, but instead, it just titillated off-kilter taste and vindicated their own bullshit perspectives?
That’s Tyrel, a laudably executed film that exists for no one at all. While Silva certainly has his own personal vision about otherness and being a POC surrounded by white peers, the experience of Tyrel is so specifically a black one that it shouldn’t be surprising that a non-black filmmaker would do little more than poke around at these confrontational ideas as a casual cinematic experiment. It’s a shame and a real waste of the talent on display, but it’s typical for all the same reasons this plot even functions at face value. This is nothing more than a real groaner masquerading as some kind of fascinating woke thriller.