I’ve always been a fan of independent films, mostly because they are able to delve into aspects of humanity that just wouldn’t make for a big budget blockbuster. With the advent of digital video an increasing number of film makers are able to bring their vision to the screen. One of the most recent entries into this world of smaller films is Jeff Stanzler's ‘Sorry, Haters’. This film is a psychological thriller set in the emotional disruption of our post 9-11 world. Phoebe (Robin Wright Penn) is an executive working for a Manhattan based youth oriented station, Q-Dog, particularly for a ‘homes of the rich and famous’ show called ‘Sorry, Haters’. Between her divorce and the high pressures of the job Phoebe is on the edge of a complete nervous breakdown. One night she gets into a cab driven by an underemployed Syrian chemistry PhD, Ashade (Abdellatif Kechiche). She wants him to drive her all the way out to Englewood Cliffs, NJ so she can spy on her ex-husband, Josh Hamilton and his new lover Phyllis (Sandra Oh). Ashade is naturally reluctant but he had mentioned to Phoebe that his brother is being held in Guantanamo and Phoebe assures him that the corporate lawyers could help have his brother released. What happens in New Jersey is more than just observation. Phoebe vandalizes a car giving the first hint that Phoebe is not exactly playing with a complete deck, All Ashade wants from life at this point is to earn a living to support his illegal wife and the young child of his imprisoned brother. Instead he finds himself pulled into the bizarre machinations of this troubled woman. The degree of instability in Phoebe lies beneath the surface at first but when she begins to talk about munitions and doing some real damage Ashade realizes that he has picked up the wrong fare. It turns out that Phyllis is actually Phoebe’s boss at the station and Phoebe is not who she said she was. The plot twists come one after another and unfortunately loses its narrative along the way.
Some of the major plot points do come across as implausible. First of all no matter how desperate Ashade was to clear his brother and secure his wife’s immigration status why would he invite a strange, potentially unstable woman to meet his wife. He has lost most of his trust for our government so why would he place so much on the word of a stranger. There are attempts to make sense of this but the validation does not really hold together. The basic premise of the film would have held up more if the focus remained on the two central characters and their interaction in the cab. Those scenes are riveting and dynamic but once the action moves out to other sets the concentration and intensity is lost. I’ve lived in New York City all my life and have had many conversations with cabbies over the years. The degree of bounding and trust required here never emerged in any of those conversations. The film may have been better off if instead of delving into the nature of terrorism it remained focused on bigotry and the emotional impact of the disaster of 9-11 and how an American and a Syrian was forced to cope.
The one thing that does work for this film is without a doubt the cast. Robin Wright Penn has shown that she is more than willing to take risks in the roles she takes on. From the confused young woman in Forrest Gump to the lusty part in Moll Flanders Wright-Penn has demonstrated incredible range in her acting abilities. Here she is able to shine despite the failings of the script. She has an intensity that leaps off the screen. Ms Wright-Penn is able to slowly transform from what appears to be just another depressed business woman into a person that is capable of extreme acts of violence. In this performance she makes her character work by pulling the audience in much the same way as Phoebe manages to engage Ashade. If she went over the top too fast she would have completely lost any hope of connecting on an emotional level with the audience. She begins in almost a detached fashion, not really likeable but there is something about her performance that keeps the audience watching. Abdellatif Kechiche is not exactly a household name here in the States. His credits include not only time in front of the camera but also direction and screen writer as well. This obviously gave him the background to put his all into this performance. Even though the plot progressed in an unrealistic manner Kechiche was able to make the audience believe that a man might make such ill informed decisions. He plays Ashade as a man that once had a life as a professional, a scientist. Now, he has to drive a cab to eke out a meager existence. Kechiche gives us a family man whose life has been disrupted through no fault of his own. His own religion has become a reason for people to hate him. Ashade is lumped in with people that he holds no common ground. Sandra Oh may be best known know for her television role in ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ but she is actually one of the best independent actresses around. Here she provides a lot for her pivotal role as Phyllis. The hallmark of a great actor is she is able to give as much to a smaller role as should would for a lead.
There is something special about DVD releases provided by IFC. Even when they fall short of what they could have been they are typically better than a lot of the mindless films the big studios release. ‘Sorry, Haters’ could have been more but it still represents an imaginative and well filmed movie. The use of digital media gives the full screen video an almost documentary and intimate feel. The use of lighting and color is excellent and reinforces the emotional feel of the piece. The Dolby 5.1 audio is robust. The rear speakers provide a realistic ambience but the sub woofer is not truly required. This film dares to try something different and I have to give it credit for that. Despite its flaws it remains a film worth a viewing.