The setup for Sebastián Silva’s riveting drama Tyrel is a deceptively simple one – two friends are driving out from the city to have a guys weekend to celebrate a birthday. There are nine in total, with only one an African American. As games are played and drinks start to flow the cauldron of social interaction uncovers the disparate experiences of those involved, particularly from the perspective of how the young black man integrates into the larger community.
While this is how the film is setup, there’s far more going on in Silva’s remarkably deep script. There are a myriad of other identities at play here – a gay man Dylan (Roddy Bottum), the outrageous filter-free Max (Caleb Landry Jones), the sympathetic yet torn Johnny (Christopher Abbott) and the pecunious and preposterous Alan (Michael Cera). Yet this is still very much Tyler’s story (it’s the misassumption of his name that gives the film its title), and we see the events through his eyes in ways that often surprise and challenge expectations.
Through this profound performance by Jason Mitchell, an actor who already gained plenty of attention for his roles in Mudbound and Straight Outta Compton, you have a deeply penetrating examination of dynamic between race, class, gender, age and even the urban/rural divide. The deep divisions at the heart of America are all intertwined here, and time after time Silva undercuts a given moment by proving that malice need not be exhibit in order to elicit discomfort or even dismissal.
Even music can be a source of division, with a central focus on the “universality” of R.E.M called into question, contrasted to tunes that Tyler listens to in his car. As the young man finds immediate favour with the wacky, wetsuited Alan (calling him “my nigger” freely), even that connection undergoes shifts as the booze begins to flow and the need to escape grows.
It’s here that the film takes another shift, showing the flaws and prejudices are shared in different ways among all the characters, with a wonderfully subtle scene involving a neighbouring woman (Ann Dowd), her baritone sax playing partner (Reg E. Cathey), amplifying some of the social awkwardness and undercurrent of prejudicial judgement that’s far more complex than might first be understood.
It’s this shift in perceptions, and the ways that Silva undercuts moment after moment by adding subtle complexity, that makes the film as rich and rewarding as it is. Audiences may be expecting explosions or more overt moments in order to find catharsis, much as the (rightly) celebrated Get Out took similar themes and placed them within the heightened tropes of a genre picture. Silva’s film, in contrast, is far more demanding by forcing the audience to see these character not simply as types but as even deeper, more flawed human characters who react within the social conditions in ways both unique to their person and shaped by their own biases and expectations.
Shot handheld in a documentary style, the work feels almost improvised, with the dynamic of the drunken bros feeling very much of a kind. Yet as the dynamics shift over and over it’s clear that this is all tightly controlled drama, building upon everything from the political catharsis of thumping a Trump piñata to mining “black Twitter” memes to debate the salt grit vs sugar grit divide, evoking race-imitator Rachel Dolezal to add yet another level to the discourse.
There’s so much going on in Tyrel that’s under the surface, with glances and asides doing the power of what in other films would be tackled by monologue, that some audiences may not hook on to just how powerful of a film this proves to be. Silva introduced his film as being a conversation about America, and as such he doesn’t pretend to provide any definitive answers or judgment. Instead, his film illustrates both the beauty and complexity of the American experiment, how disparate elements combine not always to share every aspect of their character but to find, ideally, a common purpose. It’s where those divides are undercut that things get ugly, where ignorance can sometimes be weaponized and even the best of intentions can inflict discord.
Tyrel will struggle to find a wide audience – it doesn’t have a hook to really draw in wide audiences, and the moments it captures are more discomforting than explosive. Yet there’s few films that have poignantly and provocatively spoken about the various aspects of the American masculine experience as this one, playing as sophisticated a rumination upon social dynamics as the novel “Lord of the Flies” that Tyler is reading in one of the film’s less subtle nods. Jason Mitchell is extraordinary in the titular role, but equally look to Michael Cera for a role that speaks not only to his previous canon of work but illustrates again what an intelligent performer he is, mixing comedy and tension in remarkable ways.
A small film with big ambitions, Tyrel takes its setup and runs with it in directions both surprising and compelling, crafting a work that demands much of its audience to trace the dynamic between the associated individuals. It’s a work that opens up discussion as much as it illustrates divides, and in so doing so does more than many to properly articulate both the challenges and strengths of building this or any community. This is a film of intelligence and intensity, likely too easily dismissed but a rich experience for those willing to follow its lead and dig deeper below the surface or our out expectations and judgments to find the richness within.