The premise of writer-director Sebastián Silva’s “Tyrel” is simple enough: a guy joins his friend on a trip to the Catskills for a weekend birthday party (which also happens to be Trump’s inauguration weekend) with several people he doesn’t know, and he quickly discovers he is the only black man there.
With that in mind, the movie you expect is one that might offer some smart social commentary, a statement on fake woke-ness, or perhaps a thriller similar to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Instead, what “Tyrel” offers is one stellar performance by Jason Mitchell (“Straight Outta Compton,” “Mudbound”) alongside a whole bunch of loose ends, half-thought-out commentary, and no answers for the questions the film proposes. The results may leave you confused and quite cold.
Tyler (Mitchell) decides to escape from the crowded home he shares with his girlfriend and her sick mother by heading out of town with Johnny (Christopher Abbott, “The Sinner”), his buddy from work. Their holiday plan? Boozin’ and male bonding with a bunch of guys Tyler has never met. Johnny’s Argentine friend Nico (Nicolas Arze) has invited them and a bunch of other dudes to his cabin in the Catskills, in the dead of winter, for a birthday celebration for Pete (Caleb Landry Jones, “Get Out”).
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As Tyler meets the other guys, he comes to the realization that he’s about to spend an entire weekend with an all-white group of men. That flash of realization is one of the finer moments from Mitchell, who wears his discomfort in his eyes; it’s a look so visibly clear to those who know what it feels like to be the outsider, and more so, a feeling people of color know all too well upon realizing they’re the only person of color in a situation.
But Tyler tries to be one of the guys, ignoring some off-color remarks until the men play a game where they are given an iconic movie line and have to say it in a specific “accent” they draw at random. Of course, someone is given “black.” Of course, an argument erupts (though not at Tyler’s insistence) over whether or not it’s racist to assume there’s such a thing as a “black accent.” And then Tyler performs a version of that accent for the group.
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It’s apparent that Silva (“Nasty Baby”) wants the audience to feel on-edge, wondering what will happen if Tyler finally gets to express himself, and the remote scenery definitely adds to that anxiety while also evoking hints of loneliness and desperation. But rather than go all-in on exploring heavy issues regarding race, appropriation, depression, and anxiety, or on focusing on the possible evolution of his characters — and boy, can these characters use some evolving — Silva chooses instead to teeter on the edge of a point before letting the thought dissolve into nothing, as if he is afraid to fully dive in and explore the narrative possibilities.
Silva relies too heavily on surface symbolism and dialogue: Tyler takes out “Lord of the Flies” to read, and later spoiled rich kid Alan (Michael Cera) tells Tyler, “Never trust the white man; he’ll let you die in the wilderness.” Much like the British schoolboys of “Lord of the Flies,” these men bask in their white privilege, and the more they drink, the less beholden to society’s rules they become. A smarter script would have used that premise to dig into the issues the dialogue opens up, and it would certainly explore the idea of why Tyler utilizes a technique many people of color learn in life — to blend in and cater to whiteness, choosing to just suck up his discomfort, and laughing when it’s clear he wants to run.
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That would have been a much worthier story to tell, but instead Silva relies on the debauchery of the dude-bros. He even has Tyrel call Alan his “n***a,” and at one point, puts Alan in a do-rag but makes no statement about it while, in another scene, Silva takes careful measures to highlight Tyler’s night-time hair-care routine. The story is a bit confused on just how far it’s willing to explore American racial complexities.
The shaky, handheld camera shots from cinematographer Alexis Zabe (“The Florida Project”) create a feeling of chaos and a tension that adds to Mitchell’s performance. Every worry, every panic, every annoyance is articulated brilliantly by Mitchell and underscored by Zabe. The camerawork in the alcohol-fueled climax made me a bit queasy, but I couldn’t determine if it was a good or bad thing because it definitely felt like I was at the party with everyone, and just as drunk.
What “Tyrel” lacks in substance, Jason Mitchell more than makes up for in his performance. He is thoughtful, precise, vulnerable and authentic, and even in as flawed a film as “Tyrel,” he is an absolute joy to watch.