‘A Different Man’ Review: Sebastian Stan and Adam Pearson Effectively Sell This Duel of Disability

Sundance 2024: Aaron Schimberg’s latest is an intriguing blend of drama, dark comedy and body horror

"A Different Man"
"A Different Man" (CREDIT: Sundance)

There comes a moment in director and writer’s Aaron Schimberg’s “A Different Man” when the film’s two leads, Edward and Ingrid, played by Sebastian Stan and Renate Reinsve respectively, are eating in a diner. A man walking outside the diner stops at the window and starts waving to Edward. Ingrid is surprised. Does Edward know this man? Edward says no but that this happens to him often. “People just wave.”

It’s a moment that a disabled audience will keenly feel at several points of “A Different Man.” Edward deals with a severe facial deformity that causes people to stare at him, gasp and, in the case at the diner, randomly wave at him. Schimberg has explored the nuances of disability before, with his 2018 feature “Chained for Life,” but this film is….dare we say….different. Not only because A24 is releasing the film, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, but because of how acutely it lays out the nuances of being disabled and the ethical questions of who gets to tell disabled stories.

It happens right out the gate with the awareness that Stan is in the film. His Edward is a shy, quiet man who lives alone and generally falls into the stereotype of depressed disabled dude. (As a disabled writer who has watched a lot of these narratives, it’s a trope, trust me.) He has a meet cute with Ingrid but presumes she won’t be interested in him because of his disability and thus decides to take a chance on an experimental treatment that claims to cure his facial deformity.

The magic cure has long been a disability trope and, in this case, it presents the opportunity for a lot of good, gory David Cronenberg-ian body horror as pieces of Edward’s face start to fall off leaving him looking like….Sebastian Stan. And that’s just the start of the wild ride Schimberg takes audiences on with “A Different Man” as the movie deconstructs ableism, misogyny and the question of whether being unattractive is, in itself, a disability of some form or not.

Sebastian Stan sells Edward, a man who believes, whether rightly or wrongly, that it’s his face that keeps people at arm’s length. Once the movie reveals his newly beautiful visage, Edward assumes his problems are solved. But what Stan does so skillfully with the character is show that even though Edward’s outer appearance his changed, his internal makeup is still the same. He still walks with a slow, reserved gait. His casts his eyes down. And he just can’t hide the fact that he dislikes certain people, particularly Oswald (Adam Pearson).

Once Adam Pearson arrives the film takes a sharp left into black comedy territory. To Edward, Oswald should be just like him; they share the same facial deformity. But Oswald is confident, multitalented, and so sociable everyone likes him instantly. The second half of the movie sees Pearson as a true co-lead and he’s got such dynamism to him, particularly against the awkward Stan. There’s such a razor-sharp veneer of black comedy watching Pearson’s Oswald be so optimistic, cultured and talented while Stan’s Edward glowers.

The film is such a two-hander between Stan and Pearson it leaves “Worst Person in the World” star Renate Reinsve feeling a bit superfluous. She’s the inciting incident of the movie — it’s her interactions with Edward that get the plot moving — and her director character, Ingrid, is fascinating in how she presents the questions of when is it ethically dubious for an able-bodied person to utilize a disabled narrative for their own ends, but she just feels flat in the role. It could be that the character, which feels like a stand-in for Schimberg himself, just can’t tackle the weight of the complex questions she’s asking.

The third act gets a bit messy, literally at one point, as it takes on a bit too many roads to bring Edward back to the film’s final conclusion. Suffice it to say that murder ends up being on the menu in some form and it doesn’t exactly sit right considering Edward as a character. And the film’s final frame has so much impact that it would have worked better coming without a whole time jump that’s never fully explained.

“A Different Man” is a fascinating exploration of humanity with Sebastian Stan and Adam Pearson being a team I want to see reunite in other works. The climax is a tad underwhelming but overall it’s a rollicking ride worth experiencing.

“A Different Man” will be released by A24.

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