‘A Lot Of Nothing’ Movie Review: SXSW – Deadline
Racial divides, distrust, and misunderstandings get exuberant, if understandably inconclusive, training in a lot of nothing, a dynamic and moving feature debut from Mo McRae which had its world premiere at South by Southwest in the Narrative Feature Competition section. Layers of suspicion, animosity and aggressive feelings come and go as an upscale black couple from Los Angeles welcomes another couple and, unexpectedly, a lower class white cop who pays the price for what he did the night before. After a powerful first act, this rambunctious work is forced to downshift somewhat as it seeks some sort of conclusion that won’t be too clumsy or simplistic given the complex dynamics at hand. While it doesn’t end on a high note, it is nonetheless an exciting and explosive piece that heralds a dynamic talent that isn’t afraid to tackle thorny issues head-on.
Co-written by McRae, who has starred in numerous TV shows, including ongoing roles in the likes of Sons of Anarchy, murder in the first, almost family and The stewardessand Sarah Kelly Kaplan, the film has fun subverting expectations and putting the characters, and therefore the audience, in uncertain territory as often as it can. While the drama comes to feel increasingly forced and contrived towards the end, it also serves to surprise, unnerve, and create ambiguity, mostly to good effect.
In a tense and choppy 20-minute pre-opening credits, we don’t see much of what happened, but the gist of it is that a policeman – specifically, a lower-class white cop who lives on the same street – has, evidently, needlessly killed a child, presumably black, and subsequently behaves belligerently. The working premise is that this is another outright murder by a racist cop who won’t pay the price for a spectacular overstepping of legal boundaries.
That’s certainly the attitude of Vanessa (Australian actress Cleopatra Coleman), an elaborately adorned beauty who insists that her husband James (Y’lan Noel, of TV show Insecure), a big-money corporate lawyer , take a gun in hand, go to the side and read the pig the riot act. She’d like it even better if he were to just hook the guy up in some justifiable revenge, and the cop’s restless, uncooperative state does nothing to support an alternative view of his mindset.
Shoving a moving camera into the middle of it all with impressive grace, McRae and cinematographer John Rosario strongly relay the tensions that run through the couple’s minds and hearts, which are so restless they result in an unexpected sexual episode. On top of all that physical action and emotional disruption, Vanessa’s brother Jamal (Shamier Anderson) and his wife Candy (Lex Scott Davis) have dinner, setting the table for what suddenly feels like a play.
As a result, the dialogue – full of fury, accusations, threats, hurt feelings, suspicions and general uncertainty about what to do – burns like wildfire. Furious Vanessa can’t help but go next door to confront the cop about what he’s done and when she does, the officer, named Brian (Justin Hartley), calls her crazy and threatens to arrest him. Raising the bar, she leaves and comes back with a gun and takes it to her garage, after which James, who isn’t happy about how far his wife has taken things, nevertheless records the cop in the garage where James’ Tesla is usually parked.
Although the contexts are entirely different, there’s a kind of cheap electric charge to the very elemental drama playing out here that reminds – like it or not –Fatal attraction. The similarity lies in the sight of attractive, well-to-do and normally civilized people stooping to something resembling wild animals. When first presented with these rarefied individuals, you never suspect they could so quickly be reduced to a bestial state, but McRae takes you there.
The couple is so absorbed by their unexpected guest that they have forgotten their guests, who arrive in due time. The situation could hardly be more embarrassing; While the cop stays tied up in the garage, James and Vanessa try to cook a meal they completely forgot about while the heavily pregnant Candy talks about all her food limitations. What up to this point has been highly charged, razor-edge drama suddenly turns a dramatic left into polite chatter, and it’s a transition the writers and director can’t entirely cope with. The drama that had been roaring for an hour suddenly becomes subdued, almost to a ridiculously absurd extent.
There are, of course, more twists to come regarding the unexpected guest in the garage, but a lot of nothing (a strange title) does not pay off as much as hoped after such a busy start. The plot starts to feel rather forced, and the final act’s change in tone doesn’t mesh well with what came before, leaving a somewhat disappointed feeling after the first few rounds of dynamite.
Yet the social and racial issues at the center of things have a real electric charge here, the performances exude considerable warmth, and the filming, especially in the first hour, immerses you in a sense of great intimacy with the characters. Everyone involved here, in front of and behind the camera, will be worth following to see what they do next.