Sundance 2018 – Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a 30-something telemarketer in an alternate present-day Oakland who discovers a magical “white voice” inside of him that propels him to the top of his company where he sells slave labor and weapons of mass destruction over the phone. I can’t say anymore, because this setup is only a gateway to far crazier things that are best left as a surprise. This film is as bonkers as it sounds, and it’s a lot of fun as writer/director Boots Riley crafts a deeply unique racial satire for his directorial debut.

Lakeith Stanfield was one of the most talented actors of his generation right off the bat with his debut in 2013’s Short Term 12, and it’s been so great to watch him continue to grow. He’s great here in the lead performance, ably balancing comedic and dramatic elements in each scene and making this wonky setting feel human. It’s really fun to watch Tessa Thompson do some zany things, and Steven Yeun always puts in quality work. Armie Hammer, who we love and respect here at this site, is a delight as Steve Lift, the coked-up CEO of WorryFree. When Cassius first meets him, Lift snorts one of the biggest lines of cocaine I’ve ever seen on film. It’s remarkable.

To start off, Boots Riley is a great name for a director, and thankfully his talent lives up to the name. He strives to make each scene, each shot, feel as fresh as possible. He and cinematographer Doug Emmett keep each sequence lively with inventive camera movements and edits. There’s plenty of inspiration to be seen from Terry Gilliam’s classic Brazil as Riley creates his own kafkaesque, capitalism-overdosed society with some fiery and biting racial satire on top. The idea of the “white voice” to make Cassius more successful is just ingenious. There are a lot of ideas in this film that you’d just wish you’d come up with yourself. At one point a woman next to me leaned over to her companion and said “Oh my god this is brilliant.” Normally I’d be mad that somebody next to me was talking during the film, but she validated what a lot of us were thinking.  

Whoever picks it up will likely make some adjustments, but that could be for the better. There are parts where it feels like it’s trying a little too hard to be ironic and quirky, but not enough to detract from how much it works otherwise. There are also multiple moments where the “white voice” does not match with the actors mouths and it’s distracting. But whoever picks it up will also have a chance of having a surprise hit on their hands.

What sticks with you is the worldbuilding that’s done so well with limited resources. This is a world where slave labor has come back as an industry, where people sign lifetime contracts to work in warehouses but their food and living are covered called WorryFree. This is a world where the most popular television show is called “I Got The Shit Beat Out Of Me” where exactly that happens each episode. This is a world where news detrimental to the human race can get leaked, but nobody cares. What’s scary is that the further we dive into this world, the more we realize it’s not all that alternate to our own. We might already be living there.

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