Sundance alum Qasim Basir (2018’s “A Boy, A Girl, A Dream”) returns to Park City with “To Live and Die and Live,” an endlessly grim tale about a filmmaker’s homecoming to Detroit for his father’s funeral and some unfinished business. This is set against a palette of the prevailing sense of alienation he experiences within his extended family, creative circles, and the Muslim community.
Muhammad (Amin Joseph, “Snowfall”) first emerges, sobbing, from a kaleidoscopic blur that turns out to be illuminated advertisements along an airport terminal’s moving walkway. In a split second his mood shifts. After a quick visit with his drug dealer, he makes his way to a club where purple-haired Asia (Skye P. Marshall, CBS’ “Good Sam”) catches his eye as she writhes on the dance floor. She swats his wandering hand away, yet she doesn’t outright shut him down. She does, however, draw a line when he gets exercised over her picking up his phone.
Apparently without any rest, he heads over to a mosque to prepare for the funeral the next day. The celebration of a life promptly devolves into a discussion about how to split the expenses. Without prompting, Muhammad volunteers to take care of it. His father’s associate Kevin (Omari Hardwick) turns up with a blue accordion folder stuffed with items of business that need the son’s attention. Next thing we see is Muhammad calling his agent asking for an advance.
The situation eventually gets so dire that Muhammad would probably sign up for “Squid Game” if offered a spot. But “To Live and Die and Live” is not a thriller; the Slough of Despond he faces is depicted earnestly, though sometimes skating dangerously close to Tyler Perry territory.
Though dad is dead from the outset, he casts a long shadow over the other characters, most of whom aren’t as well defined. Through anecdotes, we get to know far more about him than about his numerous surviving family members, mostly women. The only one of them who leaves a lasting impression is not above casually weaponizing feminism and visiting racialized trauma on Muhammad by threatening to scream in public and falsely accuse him to get her way. While this interaction is entirely plausible, the only woman with any complexity in the film is over-the-top negative. Meanwhile, Asia, who provides Muhammad emotional refuge, is shaped almost entirely by a serious health condition. Muhammad’s sister Iman (Maryam Basir, “The Chi”) is a significant presence yet we know even less about her.
Even so, the film offers profound contemplation on the sense of alienation within communal and supposed safe spaces. Despite his own financial woes, Muhammad assumes he has to take care of the family’s obligations because of his proximity to success and his status as the de facto “man of the house.” Muhammad is immersed in Islamic culture, but the faith doesn’t provide the spiritual and moral compass he obviously needs.
When his alma mater invites him to speak in front of its film club, Muhammad draws on his own bitter disillusionment with the industry to dissuade students from pursuing their aspirations. While male alienation is often fodder for cinema, few movies explore it in an everyday context like this, with a protagonist trudging through instead of resorting to desperate measures. With the weight of this burden and no outlet or relief in sight, it’s no wonder he succumbs to drugs and alcohol.
Muhammad eventually crashes his rental while driving drunk, and he begs Akil (Cory Hardrict) to approach the arriving officers and take the rap for him — a huge ask. The film is no doubt reacting to the Black Lives Matter movement prompted by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and others. The scene is powerful, yet the film has the misfortune of arriving at Sundance exactly a year after “Emergency,” which devoted its entire runtime to the topic and explored it much more deeply.
Qasim Basir wears many hats on this project; he is credited as the director, writer, and one of eight producers (Forest Whitaker is another). But the skill of his that stands out above the rest is cinematography. The film, at times, resembles a commercial spot or music video, occasionally employing lens flare and shallow depth of field to effect a stylized look.
Joseph and Marshall flash fleeting moments of brilliance in their performances, leaving you wondering if they would benefit from better direction or stronger material. Hardrict and Basir certainly have the standout turns that make you wish there were more to their characters so they could really shine.
Basir’s script is ambitious and thoughtful, though flawed. The regrettable characterizations of women aside, some of the dots don’t quite connect. The film allows only glimpses of Muhammad’s professional life, through the calls to his agent and his lecture at the Wayne State University film club. It only sparingly conjures up the artist’s isolation within the creative field, failing to flesh that into something meaningful. The same with Muhammad’s place in Islam. These ideas seem a richer vein to mine than the family and the romantic drama.
“To Live and Die and Live” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.