Critical Writing & Reviewing, Summer 2019
In a long tradition of the depiction of American life, director Kirill Mikhanovsky throws his hat into the ring with his new film, Give Me Liberty. The film follows a driver of a disability van in modern-day Milwaukee, and through portraying protagonist Vic’s day in the city, Mikhanovsky explores a deeply divided America in a nuanced and moving way.
Chris Galust makes his acting debut as Vic, the woe-begotten protagonist of Give Me Liberty, as he suffers through the seemingly never-ending day at work. After the bus cancels on Vic’s grandfather and his grandfather’s friends, they demand that Vic takes them to the cemetery in his disability van in order to attend their friend’s funeral. Thus begins a zany ensemble comedy as Vic attempts to pick up his clients while keeping his eccentric, elderly passengers at bay.
On the surface, the comedy itself is enough to propel this film forward. The culture clash makes for consistent gags in the first act of the film, but it also establishes the foundation for the film’s conversation about a segregated America. Vic and his family are a white, working-class group of immigrants, whereas Vic’s job takes them into “bad” neighborhoods, primarily African-American areas of the city. Both Vic’s family and his clients feel ostracized from the city in which they live, and both feel equally ostracized from each other.
Milwaukee is one of the most populous cities in the United States, but it is also one of the most deeply segregated. Exploring the “American experience” from the strangely novel perspective that there is more than one American experience allows Give Me Liberty to portray a country familiar to many American viewers. Lead characters Vic and Tracy (Lauren Spencer) come from incredibly different backgrounds but play off of each other comedically and emotionally, grounding the hectic nature of the film.
Both actors make spectacular debuts in their first film. Spencer balances out Galust’s laconic performance with her own snappy dialogue delivery. Galust specifically approaches the role with the appropriate amount of exasperation in order to endear himself to the audience. In a refreshing portrayal by actual Russian actors, the background characters also have shining moments throughout the film, especially Dima (Maksim Stoyanov) and Vic’s grandfather.
The editing and cinematography of the film are also a departure from a typical drama, implementing grainy, home-video-quality clips for segments, instead of the scenes in a linear narrative, in order to emphasize the emotional impact. At one point in the film it is entirely in black and white, which makes sense for the scene it encompasses, but remains a jarring viewing experience. The artistic decisions overall made for a beautiful and experimental film, but it did not exactly make for a pleasant viewing experience at times.
The characters’ screen time often left much to be desired, especially regarding the portrayal of Tracy. Ostensibly the other lead of this film, Tracy is a compelling character who gets no real exploration or character development. Her family is disjointed and oddly portrayed, forcing the viewer to question why they were even featured in the first place. Ultimately, the romantic subplot between her and Vic is the film’s biggest disservice both to her and its viewers, as it is unnecessary and nonsensical.
Give Me Liberty also struggled to hero all of its incredible storylines. The initial plot is simple: Vic must drive his family and family friends to the cemetery despite needing to continue serving his clients, and Tracy must deal with her driver being distracted, and therefore forcing her to be late. However, whereas the protests in the background make for great commentary in the earlier half of the film, adding the protest as an active element of the story, at the film’s climax no less, muddles the already hectic film. The movie also falls short as it attempts to highlight characters with disabilities, as it often resorts to having them in the background for scenery. This is especially apparent in the recurring monologues from Vic’s bedridden client, who serves no real purpose in the film other than to explore a vague meaning of life.
This being said, for all its faults, Give Me Liberty drives home Mikhanovsky’s own experience as a white immigrant in a segregated city, a point of view not enough explored in American cinema. Such a story is sure to resonate with viewers who crave a more diverse portrayal of American life, and will hopefully excite moviegoers to seek out more viewpoints in the future.
Cast: Chis Galust, Lauren ‘Lolo’ Spencer, Maksim Stoyanov
Directed by Kirill Mikhanovsky; Written by Alice Austen & Kirill Mikhanovsky