Racial divides, mistrust and misunderstandings get a rambunctious, if understandably inconclusive workout in A Lot of Nothing, a dynamic and agitating feature debut by Mo McRae that had its world premiere at South by Southwest in the Narrative Feature Competition section. Layers of suspicions, animosity and aggressive feelings ebb and flow as an upscale Los Angeles black couple plays host to another couple and, unexpectedly, to a lower-class white cop who’s paying a price for what he did the night before. After a powerful first act, this turbulent work is obliged to downshift somewhat as it seeks some kind of conclusion that won’t be too pat or simplistic given the complex dynamics at hand. While it doesn’t end on a satisfying note, this is nonetheless an excitingly combustible piece that announces a vibrant talent unafraid to confront thorny issues head-on.
Co-written by McRae, who has acted in a lot of TV including ongoing roles in the likes of Sons of Anarchy, Murder in the First, Almost Family and The Flight Attendant, and Sarah Kelly Kaplan, the film enjoys subverting expectations and putting the characters, and as a consequence the audience, on uncertain ground as often as it can. Even as the drama comes to feel increasingly forced and contrived toward the end, it also serves to surprise, unnerve and create ambiguity, to mostly good effect
In a taut and bristly 20-minute pre-opening credits stretch, we don’t see much of what happened, but the gist is that a policeman—specifically, a lower-class white cop who lives on the same street—has, evidently, unnecessarily killed a kid, presumably a black one, and in the aftermath is behaving in a belligerent manner. The operating assumption is that this is yet another flat-out murder by a racist cop who won’t pay a price for dramatically overstepping legal boundaries.
This is certainly the attitude of Vanessa (Australian actress Cleopatra Coleman), an elaborately decked out beauty who insists that her big bucks corporate lawyer husband James (Y’lan Noel, of television’s Insecure) take a gun in hand, go next door and read the pig the riot act. She’d like it even better if he were to just plug the guy in justifiable revenge, and the cop’s agitated, uncooperative state does nothing to support an alternative view of his state of mind.
Thrusting a mobile camera into the middle of everything with an impressive amount of grace, McRae and cinematographer John Rosario strongly relay the tensions coursing through the couple’s minds and hearts, which are so agitated that they result in an unexpected bout of sex. On top of all this physical action and emotional disruption, Vanessa’s brother Jamal (Shamier Anderson) and his wife Candy (Lex Scott Davis) are due over for dinner, setting the table for what suddenly feels like a theatrical play.
Accordingly, the dialogue—full of fury, accusations, threats, bruised feelings, suspicions and overall uncertainty as to what to do—burns like a wildfire. The furious Vanessa can’t resist going next door to confront the cop about what he’s done and, when she does so, the officer, named Brian (Justin Hartley), calls her crazy and threatens to arrest her. Upping the ante, she leaves and comes back with a gun and marches him into her garage, whereupon James, who’s not happy about how far his wife has pushed things, nonetheless tapes the cop up 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 reminiscent of—like it or not—Fatal Attraction. The similarity rests in the spectacle of attractive, well-off, normally civilized people lowering themselves to something resembling animals in the wild. When first presented with these rarified individuals, you’d never suspect they could so quickly reduced to a beastly state, but McRae takes you there.
So consumed is the couple with their unexpected guest that they’ve forgotten about their dinner guests, who in due course turn up. The situation could scarcely be more awkward; as the cop remains tied up in the garage, James and Vanessa try to pull together a meal they’d completely forgotten about while the very pregnant Candy prattles on about all her dietary limitations. What up to this moment was a highly charged, razor’s edge drama suddenly makes a dramatic left turn into polite chit-chat, and it’s a transition with which the writers and director can’t entirely cope. The drama that had been roaring along for an hour suddenly becomes reined in, almost to a laughably absurd extent.
There are, to be sure, further twists and turns to come regarding the unexpected guest in the garage, but A Lot of Nothing (a strange title) ultimately doesn’t pay off to the extent one hopes for after such a highly charged start. The plotting begins to feel rather forced and the tonal shift of the final act doesn’t jibe well with what’s come before, leaving one feeling somewhat let down after the dynamite opening rounds.
All the same, social and racial issues at the center of things here possess a real electric charge, the performances convey considerable heat and the filmmaking, especially in the first hour, pushes you into a feeling of great intimacy with the characters. Everyone involved here, in front of and behind the camera, will be well worth following to see what they do next.
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