TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The independent comedy "Give Me Liberty" is now in theaters after having played to great acclaim earlier this year at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. Directed by the Russian American filmmaker Kirill Mikhanovsky, who wrote the script with Alice Austen, it follows the driver of a medical transport van and his passengers over the course of a busy 24 hours in Milwaukee. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Shortly after he moved from Moscow to Milwaukee in 1993, Kirill Mikhanovsky got a job driving a medical transport van, shuttling people with disabilities to their appointments around the city. He must have had some wild adventures and encounters along the way, a few of which clearly inspired his exhilarating second feature as a director, "Give Me Liberty."
Set over the course of one very eventful day, the picture follows an unruly group of passengers riding around wintry Milwaukee in a van much like the one Mikhanovsky used to drive. Shot with a whirling hand-held camera and a terrific cast of mostly non-professional actors, the movie plays like a social realist screwball comedy, a full-blown farce on wheels. It also feels wholly authentic in its portrait of poor, marginalized individuals who are thrown together and forced to coexist for a few hours in one of the country's most segregated cities.
The driver of the van is a desperately overcommitted young Russian American named Vic beautifully played by Chris Galust. His day is going disastrously even before he gets behind the wheel as he tries to keep his grandfather from destroying their shared apartment and help him get ready for the funeral of a dear old friend. As Vic begins his pickups and drop-offs, he finds that several streets are blocked due to local protests following a police shooting in a black neighborhood. He transports a blind man who grumbles about the protesters and picks up a woman who's headed to a vocational center for the disabled where she plans to perform "Rock Around The Clock" in a talent show. But nothing goes according to plan, and "Give Me Liberty" becomes a masterclass in controlled chaos.
Vic learns that his grandfather and his fellow mourners never made it to the funeral, and so good helpful kid that he is, he goes back and picks them up. They pile into his van, curse and complain, play the accordion and sing Russian folk songs. A dispatcher barks orders over the radio as Vic speeds over pothole-riddled roads and even sideswipes another car.
Things shift into high gear when Vic picks up Tracy, a young woman with ALS who uses a motorized wheelchair. Played with tough-talking charisma by Lauren "Lolo" Spencer, Tracy works as an advocate for people with disabilities. And she gives Vic hell for his endless detours and delays. But they soon realize that they have a lot in common, including the fact that many people depend on them. Their back-and-forth dynamic becomes both the driving force and the emotional center of the movie. Here, Tracy gently ribs Vic for keeping an enormous box of vinyl records in the van.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GIVE ME LIBERTY")
LAUREN SPENCER: (As Tracy) Eh, you remember what you were saying to that guy, something about, like, the records? Were you making that up? You know you could download for free.
CHRIS GALUST: (As Vic) I'm well aware of that, thank you, but it's just - it's just something about vinyls, you know, certain type of quality. People nowadays, they don't hear it. It's almost like they're deaf.
SPENCER: (As Tracy) Vinyl - that's, like, your thing? That's, like, what you're into and stuff? I mean, clearly, because you got, like, a whole box of it just sitting here.
GALUST: (As Vic) My sister was just holding onto them. She's moving right now and...
SPENCER: (As Tracy) Now I'm moving out.
GALUST: (As Vic) Really?
SPENCER: (As Tracy) Yeah. I'm moving in with my boyfriend.
GALUST: (As Vic) That's pretty cool.
SPENCER: (As Tracy) This chair is broken. I can't even move around. I ain't moving no damn where. I can't get around my house.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You need to bring the van back to base now. They want the van here on the lot. Do you copy that?
GALUST: (As Vic) All right. All right. I'm on my way.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) They're going to call the police and report the van stolen...
CHANG: As Tracy, Lauren "Lolo" Spencer all but pops off the screen. Like many of the actors in the cast, she's a person with a disability playing a person with a disability. It's one of the ways in which "Give Me Liberty" sheds light on communities we too rarely see in American movies. But the film never feels as though it's broadcasting its own integrity. It's too busy getting its characters from point A to point B and staging all manner of confusion and comedy along the way to waste time on self-congratulation.
Even after the van mostly empties out, Vic's day never seems to end. And the movie's second half sustains the same level of comic attention, but it also deepens emotionally. We see beautiful moments of human connection, like when Tracy's family invites Vic and his grandfather to dinner. The movie's most big-hearted character is a Russian boxer named Dima played by Maxim Stoyanov with a boisterous charm that lights up his every scene. Vic is a quieter presence, someone who listens more than he talks, which makes him an ideal guide to this particular story.
In this remarkable human parade, Vic is just one more guy doing his best to survive and chasing the American dream the only way he knows how - behind the wheel of a van and taking as many as he can along for the ride.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be journalist Ben Westhoff, author of the new book "Fentanyl, Inc." Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that's responsible for an alarming growth of overdose deaths. Westhoff explores the manufacture, sale and use of fentanyl, which is being added to heroin and other drugs. Westhoff spoke to dealers who operate on the dark web and visited companies in China that make fentanyl and its chemical components. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROB DIXON TRIO'S "WISHING WELL")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROB DIXON TRIO'S "WISHING WELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.