'Tyrel': Film Review | Sundance 2018

An unsettling literalization of black discomfort in a nation ruled by whites.

Jason Mitchell plays odd-man-out at a weekend house party in Sebastian Silva's race-conscious drama.

Plenty of Sundancers have noted the apparent similarities between Tyrel and Get Out: Black man finds himself the only person of color stuck in a remote house full of strangers; things do not go well. But Sebastian Silva's latest is no retread of Jordan Peele's more-than-a-thriller breakthrough. Instead of envisioning how smiling white faces might hide evil intent, Tyrel observes how wounds can fester, doing damage long after unaffected parties would have assumed everything was fine. Following up acclaimed appearances in Straight Outta Compton and Mudbound, Jason Mitchell excels in a psychologically tricky part here, selling a film that should have a broader appeal than most of Silva's filmography.

Mitchell plays Tyler ("Tyrel" is what a not-really-listening white person might hear), who is escaping his girlfriend's extended family by tagging along with buddy Johnny (Christopher Abbott) to a weekend party in the Catskills. No novice at making white folks comfortable — see his impeccable manners when a middle-aged woman (the ever-welcome Ann Dowd) stops to help with their stalled car — Tyler is nonetheless taken aback by the aggressive chumminess with which Johnny's all-white friends greet him. He's an outsider regardless of his skin color, but abrasive guys like Pete (Caleb Landry Jones, who served a similar function in Get Out) make fitting in feel like running an obstacle course.

Once they settle into Johnny's friend's home, the buddies start looking for things to do while they drink. Their first choice, a game in which each player must mimic whatever accent is indicated on a slip of paper he draws from a hat, is arguably the only racially insensitive gaffe of the weekend: The player who draws (ugh) "black accent" out of the hat refuses to attempt a dialect, surely because there's a black man in the room whose speech is just like anyone's; in an idiotic attempt to fix things, players suggest Tyler should take on that challenge himself.

The game is soon abandoned, but Tyler's embarrassment lingers, coloring how he sees everything. Suddenly, the fact that everybody else is having a sing-along to a tune he doesn't know feels like a tacit way of excluding him. (Who knew R.E.M.'s "Stand" could be so loaded? The band's presumed status as go-to White Boy music will also figure into the pic's climax.) Tyler makes excuses to go to bed early.

The next day is less about trying to fit in than struggling to endure his discomfort. Maybe whiskey-laced coffee will help? More white dudes show up, louder ones than the first, and then another — Alan (Michael Cera), a rich guy given to look-at-me stunts who, unlike everybody else, doesn't pretend not to notice Tyler's the only black man here. Perhaps weirdly, this is the man Tyler takes to, joking with Alan as he dives into whatever bottle of booze is nearby. Attempting to drink his way through discomfort, Tyler actually turns himself into a problem everyone else has to deal with.

That's a very different kind of metaphor from the one fueling Get Out, and Silva nails it down to our white-supremacist moment by setting this party immediately after Donald Trump's inauguration. Like a black American who couldn't help but look at his white neighbors differently after the election no matter how they voted, Tyler doesn't know how to be at ease among those who mean him well.

Filmmakers often express the sincere but tiresome hope that their movies will "start a conversation" about some social topic. With Tyrel and Get Out, we have something more interesting — movies that are in conversation with each other about subjects individuals find notoriously hard to discuss. As Sundance continues its push to showcase more diverse filmmaking voices (assuming the voices are as original as they are varied), that conversation should only get more provocative.

Cast: Jason Mitchell, Christopher Abbott, Michael Cera, Caleb Landry Jones, Ann Dowd, Reg E. Cathey, Michael Zegen, Phillip Ettinger, Roddy Bottum, Max Born, Nicolas Arze, Trust Arancio
Director-screenwriter: Sebastian Silva
Producers: Max Born, Sebastian Silva, Jacob Wasserman, Gigi Graff, Carlos Zozaya
Executive producer-production designer: Nicolas Arze
Director of photography: Alexis Zabe
Costume designer: Heidi Bivens
Editors: Sofia Subercaseaux, Jennifer Lame
Casting director: Jessica Daniels
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Sales: UTA

86 minutes