“A person is not the worst thing he has done or the best thing.”
After catching the attention of the film community with his thesis film, Dara Ju, at UCLA in 2012, director and writer Anthony Onah was inspired to turn it into a full feature film. That brief background seems all too familiar for a young filmmaker. Moreover, Onah’s thesis was drawn from his own experience losing his father in 2010 and how he reconciled with the loss with his mother that winter. Not everyone can be Richard Linklater and take a personal experience and turn it into a brilliant abstraction.
Thankfully, this isn’t an act of imitation. It’s the mark of an indie director worth keeping an eye on. Onah takes the base of his short film following his protagonist, Seyi (Aml Ameen) and his responsibility for his Nigerian immigrant family along with the romantic interest he comes across and pushes it to another level setting it on Wall Street. Now, not only is Seyi in over his head with his family which is coping with the deterioration of his father, or even just overwhelmed by his privileged white girlfriend, Liz (Lucy Griffith). Seyi has another level of intrigue as he becomes involved with an insider trade to get a leg up at his firm.
It’s how the audience is introduced to Seyi, seeing him confounded by how his coworkers are getting more notice than he is, and even take his ideas to get that attention. The audience is made well-aware he’s the only black employee there. If not for the building greeter he talks with every morning on the ground floor, Seyi would be the only black employee. Seyi is severely conscious of that but Onah quickly moves the conversation beyond those suspicions of workplace racism.
Instead, the conversation becomes more overt as Seyi soon meets Liz at a party he was coerced in going to from one of his coworkers. It’s a scene that not only takes a refreshing jump out of frankly, tired office politics, but it also shows Onah’s depth as a visual storyteller. There aren’t any flashy sequences here but I was constantly amazed at how similar it looked to the palette of David Fincher with yellow and blue hues- The Social Network, in particular.
While The Social Network is unlikely a true influence, Seyi goes home to Facebook-stalk Liz and message her for a date, making the thread between the two film a bit stronger. It’s from here Onah shows off his chops even more, as the film’s greatest moments are the conversations between Seyi and Liz.
Their first conversation at what Seyi thinks is a date until he learns of Liz’s long-distance boyfriend, delicately addresses the feelings of Black America head-on against the perception of the Black Experience from the view of white Americans (at least from the pedestal Liz sits). It doesn’t get too preachy but opens up a conversation about the feelings of marginalization that Onah first introduces with Seyi’s work troubles.
Not only is the writing at a peak between Seyi and Liz but their actors, Ameen and Griffith, also share immediate chemistry that penetrates the screen. Ameen’s charm helps elevates most of the scenes he’s in be it during arguments with Seyi’s family or associates but his connection with Griffith is at another level. More impressive, is how Seyi’s shown not as this flawless figure but one with flaws that make him his own antagonist yet the audience can’t help but keep hoping for his success to keep peeling back the emotional onion of Seyi.
Like Seyi, that’s a lot how the film ends. There’s plenty of intrigue but a few too many valleys in between the brilliant peaks. Still, the best moments make Onah an exciting name to keep tabs on in the near future.