Director: Boots Riley
Stars: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun
Some stars are on the rise. Take Lakeith Stanfield, for example, whose jawdrop supporting performance in Short Term 12 five years ago has led to a slew of other notable supporting roles in films like Selma and Get Out. Or Tessa Thompson, joyfully everywhere right now, be that a Janelle Monáe visual album, HBO’s sci-fi hit Westworld or riding up that rainbow in Thor: Ragnarok. Both star here in Sorry To Bother You and we can add its writer/director Boots Riley to the list. This little indie has the crackling spirit and oddball wherewithal of early Spike Jonze, albeit without Charlie Kaufman’s sad-sack demeanour. This is a bright and fizzing curiosity. A perfect antidote to the encroaching winter outside.
Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a young man living in Oakland, in need of money and in the midst of a minor existential crisis. He lives in his uncle’s garage, works at an outbound call centre and is preoccupied by his place in the world; his legacy. He fears death and being forgotten. His girlfriend Detroit (Thompson) is more easy-going. For her, not everything is about posterity; the moment is fine enough. Still, Cassius yearns for greater meaning in his life… something more.
Sorry To Bother You taps into the malaise of working class youth in the face of the corporate machine. Riley writes from experience here, perfectly sending up the slew of bullshit heard within the walls of call centres to try to trick menial staff into thinking a career is in the offering. Cassius’ colleague Squeeze (Steven Yeun) spells it out to him. On the fringes of the central story (but increasingly pertinent) is a motif of corporate corruption and exploitation, with a company called Worryfree deflecting a sea of allegations in the media (Armie Hammer is perfectly smarmy as its CEO Steve Lift). What ought to feel glum comes off as witty, woke and irreverent. Sorry To Bother You acknowledges the sweeping disappointments of life, but still manages to make things sparkle.
For one thing it’s colourful. The office hues recall the motel that housed The Florida Project last year. Elsewhere, a drive through pouring rain becomes an excuse for Riley to wash Cassius’ car with different shades in neon shimmer. His movie is bright and upbeat, even as it collects the clutter of modern life.
Following advice from seasoned colleague Langston (Danny Glover), Cassius learns to use his ‘white voice’ to suppress his blackness on the phone and get more sales under his belt. It works, and Cassius finds himself on the road to becoming a ‘Power Caller’. In spite of Squeeze’s warnings, he falls for the false promise of riches. So greed is the bad guy and Sorry To Bother You falls loosely into the framework of the ol’ cautionary tale. But it’s onto more than that. As Cassius is urged more and more to use his ‘white voice’, the film speaks to not only corporate hypocrisy, but specifically how identity gets lost in the mix as our options become more homogenised. Not for nothing is the white man’s voice the dominant and preferred tone. Riley is coolly criticising cultural inequality here.
This reaches an apex at one of Steve Lift’s rich boy parties. Hilarious Eyes Wide Shut spoofing notwithstanding, Cassius is publicly demeaned as his race and class roots are called upon to sate the party-goers. He is treated like a dog with tricks demanded of him.
Success buys Cassius freedom. Financial autonomy makes his life better in certain respects. A wonderfully creative montage sees new products sprouting out of Cassius’ old ones. One might argue that the film demonises success, but it also fairly reflects the superficial benefits of upward mobility. Cassius achieves what his less fortunate colleagues want. Their protests are not about corporate ethics but low pay. Tension builds as Cassius and Detroit’s worldviews seem set to collide, while Squeeze slimes his way closer to Cassius’s free-spirited, sign-twirling girlfriend. Detroit’s ideological purity throws shade on Cassius. He’s become a sellout… and he knows it. She calls him out, labelling him “morally emaciated”. It’s a testament to the offbeat, entertaining humour of the piece that their argument manifests as a fight for covers in their bed.
From here the film spirals into yet crazier territory. There’s more ideological meat to get stuck into, but to do so would spoil some inspired plot surprises. Throughout Riley’s film takes no prisoners, and is even wise enough to commit to some self-examination. Cassius and co are kept constantly in check.
Several indie faves come to mind while watching Sorry To Bother You, such as Idiocracy, Office Space and even Spike Lee’s prickling protest piece Chi-Raq. Riley’s film stands in their wake yet still feels stuffed with its own originality. His is an invigorating new voice on the cinematic landscape. Whatever’s next will be warmly awaited. For the present, however, this is a debut you really, really ought to bother with.