Right before we were about to see Jake Johnson’s feature length directorial debut Self Reliance at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, he came on stage to talk a little about how hard he has worked to make the film happen and how much he insisted on the film’s tone and sense of humor. 90 minutes later, two things became clear: Johnson’s limited experience behind the camera makes Self Reliance particularly challenging to get right in terms of messaging and tone, but thankfully his passion comes through on screen to keep everything afloat.
With a premise that feels like The Lonely Island’s take on The Game, Self Reliance follows Tommy (Johnson), a guy who has been living a boring, uneventful, and unhappy life. He still lives with his mom, he goes to his job every day, drinks a little afterwards, then goes right back home. Rinse and repeat. Aside from him occasionally trying to find the courage to talk to his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Morales) again, he’s living the same dull routine every day.
That is until one day he is selected to participate in a dark web reality show, where people worldwide will try to hunt and murder him. If he can survive 30 days, he wins a million dollars. The catch, though, is he has to be alone for someone to kill him. As you may guess, Tommy abuses this loophole to great extremes, as he takes the deal and instantly sticks around his family (literally, because even being in a separate room in a house counts as being alone). Of course, nobody believes him. Actually, no one is willing to help.
For a good portion of the first half, Johnson relies on classic dramatic irony to garner our laughs. He would insist on having to be with someone all the time everywhere, resulting in some awkward but funny gags that range from having to sleep together in the same bed to having to be in the bathroom together while someone is on the toilet. Though many of these moments are quite hilarious, it is nevertheless surprising that Johnson held back on the more “action-driven” bits of the plot. With previous comedies like Game Night quickly establishing that the danger is indeed real and not part of the game, it might have helped if Self Reliance did a bit of the same thing here. Though Tommy does get ambushed or visited by shady people in the night, it is surprising that none of the hunters would ever employ some sort of firearm. At least a gunshot that misses Tommy would be an instant confirmation to us that the game he’s playing is indeed real.
With his family quickly finding him to be delusional, Tommy resorts to befriending a homeless man named James (Biff Wiff), and together, they watch the days go by (at least until Tommy’s 30-day window is up). Though these bits are entertaining to watch, most of them feel free of danger and suspense. Too often, we would second guess if this is all in Tommy’s head or if the game he’s playing is actually real. Though this very much feels intentional on Johnson’s part as both writer and director, the film would often see its plot trajectory and character trajectory not always aligning together – one feels like a self-reflective drama, while the other feels like an action thriller. With that, the tone that Johnson is so adamant about doesn’t always click perfectly, despite the pieces working well individually.
Self Reliance finds its footing when Tommy meets Maddy (Anna Kendrick), a young woman who is also playing the game (or maybe not?), and the two of them agree to play the game together so they can both be safe. Here, many of Johnson’s authentic ideas come into play, that we as people inherently need one another but also that we always need that nudge of encouragement to find our drive and passion again to just go out and do stuff and live.
But for a movie whose premise is so wacky and dangerous like this one, Self Reliance still feels… safe… in that the characters mostly vibe together for 30 days and very rarely do we fear for their safety. You can feel that turn in the third act, where the movie becomes obligated to resolve its plot, but even here at its resolution, you can be scratching your head over what was real and what is not.
The vibing still works, thanks to Johnson’s performance, his lovely chemistry with Kendrick together on screen, and his confidence to shake things up in tone. It’s the right balance between romantic and awkward, which are the exact two ingredients you would want in a small indie comedy. Despite the clunky storytelling, plenty of lines in the script are hilarious and delivered with a great sense of timing. Johnson may not be the most precise in his messaging, but his sincerity in wanting to say all those things together in his movie is undeniably felt that by the time we arrived at the film’s ending, it put a smile on my face.
This review is from the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.
Photo: Saeed Adyani