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BFI London Film Festival 2018 Review: Sorry To Bother You – “Margaret Atwood territory with a dash of Monty Python”

The word ‘genius’ is so casually thrown around that when a work of real genius arrives, it can get overlooked. Sorry To Bother You is a work of genius. There, I said it.

Now to explain why…

It’s a layer cake. Super weird, brash, full of riotous colour, profound, clever, political and, importantly, it’s black (both speaking to a unique black experience and painting a dark picture). To top it off, STBY is a near-future dystopian fantasy sci-fi comedy bursting with wacky CGI.

What it isn’t, at least, for me, is easily explainable! Director Boots Riley effortlessly moves from soundtrack musician to script writer to director, allowing him to hold on to his creative vision – a feat rarely achieved. And boy, is STBY’s vision unique. The film is the world’s most stylish advertisement for widening the writer/director pool.

You might have realised that I’m praising as a method of stalling because I’m loath to try to explain the plot. The specifics aren’t really the point with this movie. But this is a review, so here goes:

Cassius Green or “Cash” (Lakeith Stanfield) lives in his uncle’s garage with fiancee artist, sign-twirler and moral heart of the movie, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). They are poor and a special kind of savvy. Cash, Detroit and best mate Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) bag jobs as telemarketers at run-down firm RegalView. There, they meet Squeeze (Steven Yeun) and Langston (Danny Glover) who encourages Cash to use his white voice – not just white-sounding, but conveying that essence of patriarchal privilege – when making his calls. Cash easily finds this voice (actually voiced by David Cross) and starts hitting all of his sales targets. He notices the mysterious Mr Blank (Omari Hardwick), a sharp-suited ‘power-caller’ travel by a special lift to the next floor – where money and influence thrive. At the same time, Cash is followed by TV ads about entrepreneur Steve Lyft’s (Armie Hammer) ‘Worry Free’ work-live business (that looks A LOT like prison), and when Cash’s uncle’s debts mean he may lose his house, he considers joining Worry Free. Then, Squeeze wants to unionise the telemarketers to ensure fair wages at the very moment that Cash is promoted to Power Caller, firmly wedging him between both sides of the picket line. Cash’s decisions send the film into a sharp pivot towards…well, you’ll just have to watch and see.

Riley creates a world so frightening in its truthfulness in STBY that he has to temper it with gags. Case in point: The world’s most popular game show involves semi-famous contestants getting repeatedly punched by the public before being dunked in a shit tank. It almost sounds believable!

Where Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ opened the conversation about modern America as failing state, Riley high-dives into Margaret Atwood territory with a dash of Monty Python. We laugh at his pointed references, while Rome burns.

It would be remiss not to mention the brilliant technical aspects of STBY. The lighting is perfect, Riley using night-time neon to its best effect. The film is a day-glo yet honestly trashy depiction of Oakland, California. The camera work tells its own story. So many frames are crammed with Stanfield’s face, his confusion, happiness and eventual disgust a helpful mirror. Riley wants to bring the big issues close so we cannot escape from his world. Riley also applies his musical skills to the sounds of STBY – so that the crack of police baton brutality can be hammered home.

Acting-wise: this is Stanfield’s film, but every supporting character gets their day in the sun. Thompson’s Detroit is empowered to ask the big questions and uses big words, plus Hardwick is a real screen presence. Hammer leans easily into his sleazy side as does Yeun, perhaps more surprisingly.

Sorry to Bother You demands a repeat viewing, managing to simultaneously make you laugh and feel ashamed of walking blindly through such an unequal world. It’s not possible to distill its many messages, but Riley helpfully tries to explain the film’s psychedelic denouement, when Squeeze tells Cash, “If people feel that they can’t change anything, then they start to just accept it.” We cannot and should not just accept inequality in this day and age.

In your face, truthful, really funny and agitating, You will not be sorry you saw this movie.

Check out our London Film Festival coverage

Sorry To Bother You opens in the UK on 9th December 2018.

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