You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Give Me Liberty’

Kirill Mikhanovsky crafts an unusual comedy, in which a young man risks his job driving people with disabilities by juggling other demands.

Kirill Mikhanovsky
Chris Galust, Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, Max Stoyanov

2 hours 4 minutes

Official Site: http://www.givemelibertyproductions.com/

Vic, a charismatic 25-year-old Russian-American immigrant cut from the same cloth as a young Rocky Balboa, has a heart of gold and the cheekbones of a Bruce Weber model. In another movie, this affable young man (first-timer Chris Galust, who’s a natural) would almost certainly be the romantic lead, saddled with girl trouble or a small-time score of some kind — but not in “Give Me Liberty,” the second feature from Russia-born director Kirill Mikhanovsky (credited here by his last name alone), whose debut, “Sonhos de Peixe,” was a prize winner in Cannes’ Critics Week a dozen year ago.

This warm, fiercely independent comedy-drama eschews anything resembling formula in favor of a boisterous and freewheeling joyride drawn from Mikhanovsky’s own experience as the driver of a wheelchair-accessible transport vehicle. Shortly after moving from Moscow to Milwaukee (and several years before becoming a professional filmmaker), Mikhanovsky was entrusted with one of those enormous, elevator-equipped vans designed to get people with disabilities from point A to point B — during which time he discovered a wealth of amusing characters and situations seldom or never depicted on-screen.

“OK, that’s a pretty unique backstory,” you say, “but what is the movie about?” Frankly, it’s about 40 minutes too long, as Mikhanovsky and co-writer Alice Austen clumsily attempt to cram some of the wildest adventures from that job into just over two hours’ running time. The overloaded result feels like an ultra-low-budget cross between Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead” and the Safdie brothers’ “Good Time,” minus movie stars or any of the ingredients that made those remotely commercial.

An early Kickstarter page for “Give Me Liberty” suggests that its two screenwriters flirted with the idea of injecting more mainstream elements into their unconventional picaresque, although it’s arguably stronger the way it wound up — as an episodic sequence of wacky mishaps that pile up over the course of a single day. It’s just that this style of film tends to work better at 80 or 90 minutes (think of Sean Baker’s high-energy “Tangerine”), and even more so when there’s a clearly defined goal that needs achieving within that limited span. With “Give Me Liberty,” Mikhanovsky creates a space that’s simultaneously charitable and chaotic, but he never quite articulates what we’re doing there. Its mantra may as well be “Enjoy the ride” — and that ought to be enough, except that there’s so much competing for audiences’ attention these days, the movie really needs some kind of hook.

What it does have going for it is Galust’s agitated Vic and a colorful ensemble of characters. Vic starts his day trying to manage an out-of-control grandfather (Arkady Basin), who’s liable to burn down the apartment if left unattended. After dealing with that situation, Vic heads downstairs to collect his first passenger, an overweight diabetic named Nate (Ben Derfel), who is blind, and begin his morning rounds.

From this first pickup it’s apparent that, unlike driving an Uber or a Lyft, there’s virtually no way to adhere to a schedule with this job, since each of his clients has special needs and few are ready to go when Vic arrives. Still, the increasingly overwhelmed young man does his best to be patient and accommodating, striving to get them where they’re going on time — although things spiral out of his grasp relatively early in the morning when he returns to his grandfather’s, only to find the entire floor clouded in smoke and the neighbors roaming the halls in confusion.

Meanwhile, crowded in the lobby are a bewildered womanizer named Dima (Max Stoyanov, lovable and larger-than-life) and nearly a dozen old-timers, who’ve gathered for the funeral of someone in the building. Because Vic’s too nice for his own good, he finds himself suckered into giving them a ride, which turns his transport van — designed to carry two or three preapproved passengers at a time — into a kind of overcrowded party bus, turned rowdy when one of the mourners pulls out his accordion and starts playing, while another spills her pills every time they hit a pothole.

Vic carries on as best he can, picking up a young woman in a wheelchair (Lauren “Lolo” Spencer) and two other people (Michelle Caspar, Steve Wolski), trying to make up for lost time by speeding recklessly down side streets and back alleys. On this particular day in Milwaukee, there’s a massive protest blocking the roads, which forces Vic to get creative in finding alternate routes while the distractions inside the van escalate. At one point, he broadsides an SUV when turning a corner, and rather than risk falling farther behind, he races off after a brief exchange with the other driver.

Dynamically shot on handheld camera by DP Wyatt Garfield and cut together in a kind of delirious whirlwind, the movie clips along for a while before its anarchic momentum starts to flag — roughly around the time the van reaches the Eisenhower Training Center. Despite more than a few dead ends and an inexplicable shift to black and white late in the film, Mikhanovsky mostly succeeds, orchestrating a number of laugh-out-loud set-pieces along the way. “Give Me Liberty” catches us off guard with its sense of humor, which amplifies the sheer absurdity of certain situations while respecting the fundamental humanity of its characters — further reflected in the choice of casting actors with disabilities.

“Give Me Liberty” never patronizes these passengers, who rely on Vic to reach job interviews, talent shows, and dance parties. Pushing back on the centuries of judgment and shame imposed on the various disabilities it depicts, the scrappy yet sincere film shines an empathetic light on those whom society so often overlooks — a generosity that extends to Russian immigrants and members of Milwaukee’s still-segregated black community. There’s a good chance that Vic may lose his job at the end of this crazy day, but we’re all the richer for having joined him on his rounds.

Sundance Film Review: 'Give Me Liberty'

Reviewed at CAA, Los Angeles, Jan. 18, 2019. (In Sundance Film Festival — NEXT.) Running time: 124 MIN.

Production: A Give Me Liberty MFG production, in association with Flux Capacitor Studios. (Int'l sales: CAA, Los Angeles.) Producers: Alice Austen, Walter S. Hall, Michael Manasseri, George Rush, Val Abel, Sergey Shtern, Kirill Mikhanovsky. Executive producers: Ryan Zacarias, Benh Zeitlin, Brian Fenwick, Gus Deardoff, Alex Witherill, Eric Wagner, David Stamm. Co-producers: Lisa Alfelt, Catherine Donnelly, Boris Frumin. Karri O'Reilly.

Crew: Director: Mikhanovsky. Screenplay: Alice Austen, Mikhanovsky. Camera (color): Wyatt Garfied. Editor: Mikhanovsky. Music: Evgueni Galperine.

With: Chris Galust, Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, Max Stoyanov, Steve Wolski, Michelle Caspar, Ben Derfel, Arkady Basin, Zoya Makhlina. (English, Russian dialogue)

More Film

  • Nicolas Cage

    Film News Roundup: Nicolas Cage's 'Jiu Jitsu' Obtains Cyprus Support

    In today’s film news roundup, Cyprus is backing Nicolas Cage’s “Jiu Jitsu”; “The Nanny” and “Amityville 1974” are moving forward; “Milk” is returning to theaters; and Garrett Hedlund’s “Burden” is getting distribution. CYPRUS REBATE More Reviews TV Review: 2019 MTV Movie and TV Awards TV Review: 'Reef Break' Nicolas Cage’s “Jiu Jitsu” has become the [...]

  • Zhao Tao

    Zhao Tao Gets Candid in Kering's Shanghai Women in Motion Showcase Interview

    Zhao Tao is one of the most recognizable faces in Chinese art cinema thanks to her longtime collaboration with director Jia Zhangke, whom she married in 2012. From 2000’s “Platform” to last year’s “Ash is Purest White,” her work has plumbed the moral depths of modern China and brought stories of the country’s drastic change [...]

  • Skyline on the Huangpu River with

    Chinese-American Film Festival Seeks Particular Dialog

    With U.S.-China ties at an ever-sinking low, the Chinese-American Film and TV Festival on Tuesday pledged to improve communications between the two countries —  at a Chinese language-only press conference Tuesday that had few foreigners present. Most attendees who took to the stage to give congratulatory speeches that seemed more intent on heaping praise upon [...]

  • Murder Mystery

    Netflix Reveals Record-Breaking Stats for Sandler-Aniston 'Murder Mystery' Flick

    “Murder Mystery,” the latest Adam Sandler film to debut on Netflix, broke viewing records on the streaming service, the company revealed Tuesday. The film, which is co-headlined by Jennifer Aniston, was seen by close to 30.9 million households in its first 3 days, according to a tweet sent out Tuesday afternoon. 🚨ADAM SANDLER AND JENNIFER [...]

  • Agents Accuse Writers Guild of Refusing

    Writers Guild 'Plans to Respond' to Agents' Proposal as Frustration Mounts

    In a sign of increasing frustration, Hollywood agents have accused the Writers Guild of America of foot-dragging in the bitter two-month dispute. “It has become clear as more days pass that the Guild is not interested in making a deal,” said the negotiating committee for the agents in statement issued Tuesday. More Reviews TV Review: [...]

  • Jermaine Fowler arrives at the 69th

    Jermaine Fowler to Co-Star With Eddie Murphy in 'Coming 2 America' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jermaine Fowler is set to play one of the leads opposite Eddie Murphy in Paramount’s sequel “Coming 2 America,” sources tell Variety. “Hustle & Flow” helmer Craig Brewer is on board to direct the pic with the studio planning an August 7, 2020 release. More Reviews TV Review: 2019 MTV Movie and TV Awards TV [...]

  • Henry Golding attends the Fragrance Foundation

    Henry Golding Starts Long House Shingle With 'Inheritance,' 'Harrington's Greatest Hits'

    “Crazy Rich Asians” star Henry Golding has started Long House Productions in partnership with China’s Starlight Cultural Entertainment Group with two features in the works. Golding’s first feature under the Long House banner is action adventure “The Inheritance,” based on an original story idea by Alistair Hudson and Golding. Hudson is writing the script for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content