It’s safe to bet that everyone, at least once, has felt trapped at a sleepover they can’t leave. It brings the ugly choice: win over the room, disappear into sleep or call crying for mom.
That’s the dilemma for the embattled lead in “Tyrel,” a sweet guy named Tyler, who finds himself the only black man at a weekend birthday celebration soaked in booze and fragile masculine egos.
“Straight Outta Compton” star Jason Mitchell plays Tyler who in the first moments of the film is called “Tyrel” by one of his new pals. Inverting the letters of his name registers as both a fleeting mistake and a nuclear microaggression. It’s a moment that sets the stage for a tense and emotional ride, written and directed by Sundance alum Sebastian Silva.
There was an urgency to see the film at its Saturday premiere, held at the Park City library, not just because Silva’s previous five films have shown here (this is his first in U.S. Dramatic Competition), but thanks to its on-paper similarities to “Get Out” — which is currently hurling toward a Best Picture nomination.
This film is about a black man isolated in the wilderness, his very presence a confrontation to the norm that surrounds him. So is “Get Out,” at first. This film also stars the gangly, charming and terrifying Caleb Landry Jones.
Here, Landry Jones plays the birthday boy, someone who challenges his new guest to physical fights and mind games. In “Get Out,” he plays a prodigal son who challenges his new guest Daniel Kaluuya to physical fights and mind games.
The similarities end there, unless you’re like us and consider a bad host and bad friends truly terrifying.
Tyler has been invited to this celebration by Johnny (Christopher Abbott), an excuse for a break from the medical problems his girlfriend’s mother is suffering. It’s weighing on his relationship, and Tyler is trying to vent to Johnny, as they make their way to the country abode of house-flipper Nico.
“The Argentinian fellow,” remarks passing neighbor Ann Dowd of Nico, a signal that there are other “others” on this trip though none ever winds up subjected to what Tyler will endure. There’s also the openly gay Roddy, whose connection to the men is unclear.
Johnny and his core group are years-long friends, cut from the same cloth of discontented men of privilege who love hypothetical babble and observational humor. Tyler is not a talker, does not need to perform his intellect and is generally uninterested in stoking the insecurities of his peers for sport.
Strapped with rising anxiety over how much he does not fit in, Tyler first tries to become of service: bussing dishes, helping cook meals, walking the adorable house dog Cosmo. But Johnny senses his unease, and instead of trying to understand, he becomes agitated. This new addition is not blending, and it’s making Johnny uncomfortable.
After sneaking off to bed early (and resisting putting on his do-rag, which was painful to watch), Tyler wakes the next day with a mission to lean the f— in. He drinks, he battles, he relentlessly teases the other men, mimicking their rituals to become one of them.
It works for a while, but he overshoots his drinking and weed smoking. He becomes seductively similar to the men, and then a total buzzkill with his slurring and horseplay and inability to hang. There’s no winning.
The audience at the library had notably different takes watching the film: some were amused at the comedy of errors and outlandish bro stunts by Johnny & Co. Others were wracked with anxiety over scenarios that could have sent the film in a bleak direction, like a drunken blindfold game where the group stabs a Donald Trump piñata with a kitchen knife.
The varied reactions could present a challenge in how a distributor might market “Tyrel,” but the obvious takeaway is Mitchell’s rich performance. He lets you feel every humiliation and subsequent redemption while he’s trapped in this dynamic.
He disappears into sleep. He wins over the room. He even calls mommy crying (a drunken trip to Dowd’s house, though he’s inevitably pulled back to his host).
He makes it rewarding.