'It's a Party': Film Review

Weldon Wong Powers
An angsty good time.

The honoree is MIA when a group of music-biz Atlantans gather for a surprise birthday party in this ensemble comedy.

The titular bash in It's a Party never quiet gets started, but the movie clicks from first moment to last. Working within obvious budget restrictions, director Weldon Wong Powers and his vibrant ensemble of comedians, actors and musicians turn a slender, single-setting premise into something dynamic. The movie, which premiered at Cinequest and recently played the Atlanta Film Festival, introduces a terrific collection of performers and could find an ardent following in streaming formats as well as in select U.S. theatrical markets.

Wong Powers and co-writer Lamar Woods (a staff writer for the comedy series New Girl and a key member of the movie's cast) have fashioned a comic riff on Waiting for Godot — not in terms of style but in the way that a longed-for central figure drives the restless collision of character types and existential crises. As on the series Atlanta, there's a successful rapper at the core of the story — aptly named Cory (hip-hop artist Open Michael Eagle) — but in this case he's mostly absent, a no-show in his own home, where friends and acquaintances gather to surprise him for his birthday.

The Atlanta setting uses the screenwriters' native city as a state of mind rather than a physical place, with events unfolding mainly in interiors. Grounded in matters of ambition and disappointment but shot through with sparks of goofiness and absurdity, the story pools an assortment of quick-sketch has-beens and hopefuls, creations that flirt with caricature but land somewhere deeper.

The few nighttime hours' worth of action — sniping, brooding, impromptu rap cyphers, awkward hookups and career-advancement maneuvers — are well punctuated by chapter titles (seven in all, two appearing in quick, jokey succession, perfectly timed). Feeling all of the pressure and taking much of the heat is Cory's hapless girlfriend, April (Ego Nwodim), instigator of the sad party. One particularly unimpressed guest (Ronnie Adrian) aims poisonously dismissive glances at the lousy spread of pretzels and chips, and delivers an exquisite parting diatribe, hilarious and diamond-sharp.

The would-be DJ (Chinedu Unaka) is paralyzed by self-doubt; a friend of a friend of a friend turns out to be a drug dealer (Evan Lewis Smith) who's agitated and armed; and Black Stacy (Carl Tart), Cory's best friend but definitely not April's, keeps telling her how much Cory would hate the very idea of this gathering. It turns out that Stacy knows the birthday boy better than April does (though engagingly played, she's the least defined character in the mix), but even Cory's loyal studio engineer (Colton Dunn) has no idea where he is.

Against a background of nameless guests who fill the fringes of the action, seen but not heard, the motley collection of bored partiers includes married-with-kids Grayson (Phil Augusta Jackson), a childhood friend of Cory's who uses the word "kudos" without irony. "You're so lame it's refreshing," April tells him. As an old-school talent manager named Vay Love, standup comedian Tony Baker amps the promotional spiel for "pop-deep" singer Caroline Rose (Hayley Marie Norman), whose self-righteous New Agey blather includes such pronouncements as "Sunrises are real, and so are sunsets."

Angsting most of all are Cool Breeze (Tone Bell), a former R&B star, and Digital E (screenwriter Woods), who produced a track for Cory and is single-mindedly determined to do it again. The former is filled with self-reproach over his lapsed career; the latter fears that his artistry is in truth hackdom. With Cool Breeze posted at an upstairs window, an anxiety-racked lookout for the man of the hour, and Digital E's defenses dissolving thanks to the hit of acid he accepted from an exceptionally chill British guest, Hannah (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, effortlessly good), it's just a matter of time before the two men share their observations from opposite ends of the music-biz trajectory. It's a well-played heart-and-soul exchange. 

Whether intentionally or as a result of limited resources, Wong Powers and production designer Stephanie Ottinger treat Cory's house as more of a blank slate than a symbol of newfound wealth. The shoestring approach is mirrored in April's stark party offerings, with most of her budget going into a money-themed sheet cake. In different ways, everyone wants a piece of it. It's the personalities that keep this joint spinning, and with agile camerawork by Carissa Dorson, Wong Powers captures each one, through a comic lens, angling toward or away from the reflected glow of the spotlight.

Cast: Ego Nwodim, Carl Tart, Tone Bell, Lamar Woods, Open Mike Eagle, Tony Baker, Phil Augusta Jackson, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Hayley Marie Norman, Chinedu Unaka, Evan Lewis Smith, Ronnie Adrian, Mandell Butler, Hari Williams, Jonathan Bangs, Genetra Tull, Jordan Kyle, Colton Dunn, Brandon Johnson, Big Gipp, Ify Nwadiwe
Director: Weldon Wong Powers
Screenwriters: Lamar Woods, Weldon Wong Powers
Producers: Lamar Woods, Weldon Wong Powers, Shanon Serikaku, Ashim Ahuja, Jayme Yarow
Director of photography: Carissa Dorson
Production designer: Stephanie Ottinger
Costume designer: Laura Cristina Ortiz
Editor: Grant McFadden
Composer: Ronald Jackson (aka Juke Box)
Casting director: Shanon Serikaku

77 minutes