Sorry to Bother You is one of the strangest movies I’ve seen in a long time. And I expected it to be strange from the trailers. It’s also one of the most impressive. Visually the trailers seem to advertise a “black Michel Gondry” (and in fact, there’s one “blink and you’ll miss it” loving dig at the French director) but that is an oversimplification of what writer and director Boots Riley is offering up on his first feature.
This movie is all about subverting expectations. World views, character’s, and lessons. There are things in here that would normally be called twists except for they fact that they come so early and often that they’re just part of a head-spinning style. Their consistency and deftness make them more akin to a slight of hand magic routine than a Shamalan ending. Even beyond the genre shifts, the movie never leaves you with sure footing.
Take Detroit (Tessa Thompson) for example. I went into the theater expecting to be team Detroit. Her art, her fashion, her attitude. From the trailers there was nothing about her that I wasn’t signed up for. But a bit of a ways into the film my devotion faltered. Not because she turned out to be awful, but because she turned out to be a real character. Thompson and Riley infuse her with a depth that leaves her, well, not perfect. And nearly every character gets a turn like that. LaKeith Stanfield’s Cash constantly bounces between a heartfelt earnestness and a selfishness when the right offers come alone. Squeeze (Steven Yeun) appears as noble at first but has elements of a cold pragmatism surface now and again.
The story also goes through shifts, some subtle and some abrupt. I’ll just mention that it happens, and not what happens, as to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say, whatever you’re expecting, something else will occur.
The visuals are clearly influenced by the works of directors like Gondry, but where Gondry holds them up to be marveled at, Riley puts them in the background or in the middle of story shifts. This makes the world seem both magical and unreliable. Gondry’s service to the visual magic make his works dreamlike. Riley has more of an edge of nightmare. For a first feature, the craft is astounding. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is an amazing one. A few too many times the frenetic tone and visuals feel like they’ve gone out of control of the director, but these are temporary and the movie always come around.
There is something else I want to touch on but not go to in-depth with, and that’s some of the themes of Sorry to Bother You. This movie says a lot about race in America. But at the same time, it says a lot about the people in America. I don’t want to say what it means because those messages are intrinsically ties to the “twists” of the film. It’s shocking, I can say that. But what each person finds shocking will vary. The scenes are so layered and loaded that I wouldn’t be shocked to hear people experience this movie in vastly different ways. I’ll give one example that, without context, doesn’t give too much away. There’s a scene at a party where Cash ends up standing in front of a group of white people, doing a call-and-response which includes the crowd shouting the n-word at him repeatedly. It is both hilarious and incredibly distressing. But the part that really got to me was Cash’s mentor, Mr. _____ (Omari Hardwick), watching him as the only other black person in the room. The shock value and humor all collapse into a human moment hidden inside of Cash’s audience, and it grounds everything outlandish in a small, personal reaction.
Touches like that both help the movie from becoming too message-ey as well as subtly show off how well crafted this movie is. Again, it’s not quite perfect. There are B stories and side characters that seem like they should spill over into each other at points, and that sometimes never happens. But that also seems to be due to something that Boots Riley tries to achieve, which is a grandness and a personal touch all at the same time. It’s about the function of art, but also when artists are and are not functional, and also a story about an artist. It’s about movements, but also about the place of passion and planning the forming of movements, and also a story about a leader. This movie is big, and it is small, and you should absolutely go see it.