‘Little Death’ Review: Dominic Fike and Talia Ryder Steal the Show In Surrealist Hollywood Story

Sundance 2024: Jack Begert’s music video experience pays off in his visually stunning directorial debut

"Little Death"
"Little Death" (CREDIT: Sundance)

It’s easy to run with “Little Death” as a film starring David Schwimmer. After all, his “Friends” character Ross is an enduring pop culture fixture. But that’s not the whole truth.

Yes, he stars as an unhappy, middle-aged TV writer named Martin Solomon who is at a personal and creative crossroads. He and his fiancée Jessica (Jena Malone) are just not in sync. She doesn’t value what he does and echoes the many who see Hollywood as more hobby than any essential need in the world.

Her lack of faith hits harder as his fear of being trapped by the hit show where he works as a staff writer increases, and the uncertainty of whether his escape plan of directing his indie film will happen mounts. To cope, he turns to pills prescribed to him under the guise of a therapist and dentist who are operating as drug pushers in plain sight with zero repercussions.

Adding to Martin’s anxiety and concern is the changing landscape of his industry. Only this time it’s amped by calls for more diversity in a “woke” era that makes him — a white Jewish man — feel even more unsure of his footing in the world. When he’s told his script, which is largely autobiographical, can be made with a gender switch semi-mirroring the hit show that pays his bills, “Little Death” gets an unexpected boost as Gaby Hoffmann steps in as a Martin 2.0, offering both insight and laughs because, of course, male Hollywood writers often write women as themselves.

When Martin runs into the mystery woman (Angela Sarafyan) he continually sees in his dreams, seemingly urging him onto something greater, he embraces the female protagonist change in his script. That pushes him to make extra bold moves in his own life that result in a narrative twist we just don’t see coming because we didn’t read the small print. Instead, we ignored the tag of “Two kids in search of a lost backpack [and] a small dog a long way from home” because we were blinded by Schwimmer’s Hollywood cache.

On screen, we see the fading of old Hollywood to the new “Euphoria”-inspired one, with musician and cast members of the disrupting HBO series Dominic Fike, along with Talia Ryder from “Dumb Money,” taking over as close high school friends AJ and Karla who are now unsuccessfully navigating young adulthood. Their night gets crazy when the criminal drug pusher they linked with to assist with a burglary turns on them, taking Karla’s car with the green backpack containing AJ’s laptop and elaborate plans for his food truck inside, leaving them with the chihuahua that also plays a small role in Martin’s story.

Getting those things back entails traveling in the food truck to a drug-hazed party featuring pig racing to link with wacky friend Greg (a memorable Sante Bentivoglio in a character with appeal on par with Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and Matthew McConoughey’s Wooderson in “Dazed and Confused”) who can connect with a likely serial killer in Grady (Karl Glusman) to help them get it all back.

Nothing ever goes as planned or is quite as it seems in Jack Begert’s directorial feature film debut at Sundance. The music video director who has created memorable imagery for big hits like Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘get him back’ and SZA’s “I Hate U” (Visualizer) with LaKeith Stanfield and brings more than that sensibility to this film. Begert plays with a visual style incorporating animation, CGI, VFX and AI to create an aesthetic many describe as postmodern, but may extend beyond that. Even in Schwimmer’s part of the film, Begert adds pop to many of Martin’s issues, using visual tricks more common to off-kilter animation and video games.

Begert’s aim is to shake Hollywood up. Yet his two movies-in-one proves that some old rules persist for a reason. As good as Schwimmer is as Martin, that story sinks under the weight of the one Fike and Ryder tell. Addiction may be Begert’s tie to the two tales, but it’s the younger, more vibrant story that prevails. Begert and cinematographer Christopher Ripley create a look for the second part that’s both realistic and dreamy, hinting at what the future could hold.

As uncertain as life looks for AJ and Karla, there is still an optimism to it that counters that of Martin’s. And, of course, the music underscores this. While we don’t know exactly what led these young people to addiction, we do know it’s, in many ways, the new cool. Underneath it all, they are searching for connection and purpose in their own way.  

“Little Death” may not be a perfect film, but it is a testament to its producer and well-known director Darren Aronofsky’s enduring ability to identify fresh talent and tell stories that define moments in need of capturing. It’s a role Begert plays well, ensuring that his feature film debut at Sundance will not be his last.

“Little Death” is a sales title at Sundance.

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