Riley Stearns made a splash at a previous SXSW when he premiered his pretty heavy drama about trying to deprogram a cult member called Faults. Five years later and he’s back with The Art of Self-Defense, which is a little less heart-breakingly sad than his last outing and lot weirder.
The film follows a meek guy named Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) who pretty much lets the entire world walk all over him. He’s bullied at work, at the grocery store, on a random walk, everywhere. The dude is a nervous wreck and that kind of deadly awkward that kills conversations before they begin.
For whatever reason, God made Casey a living doormat. That’s his lot in life until one fateful night when he is beaten within an inch of his life in a random act of violence. Viewing this as a wake-up call, Casey has finally had enough and figures it’s time for a little self-defense. He ultimately finds himself at a dojo run by a sensei who inspires Casey to tap into his inner anger and unleash the beast… well, as much as a guy like Casey can at any rate.
Playing with a tone that falls somewhere between Napoleon Dynamite, Eastbound & Down and Fight Club, The Art of Self-Defense ends up being this uniquely weird thing that is compelling, funny and just dark enough to keep you on your toes.
Jesse Eisenberg thrives here. You can tell he’s totally in his element and relishes every second he gets to play with this quirky tone. Casey could very well be the most Jesse Eisenbergian character that has ever Jesse Eisenberged and it works so well against this backdrop of absurd humor.
He gets support from a great cast, which includes a memorable turn from Imogen Poots as Anna, the long-suffering right hand woman to her pigish, alpha male dickhead sensei, played with great zeal by Alessandro Nivola.
Anna might just be the true north of this film, which has a lot on its mind when it comes to violence and what it can inspire. Casey seeks the power that has been used to hurt him all his life even though his new idol is very much the type who has made his life a living hell. Sensei is the embodiment of the selfish, aggressive, destructive power and Anna manages to fall in the middle of the spectrum. She’s strong, maybe not always in the right, but unquestionably has a moral compass that is lacking from all the dude-bros around her.
Stearns is two for two on his features so far and what’s really impressive is that Faults and The Art of Self-Defense are two vastly different movies. They’re two very good movies and share the same indie spirit, but it proves he has both a recognizable voice and a good range. I’m very excited to see what he has coming next.
The Art of Self-Defense won’t be for everybody, but if you like comedy on the dark side, perhaps peppered with moments of ultra-violence, then you’ll get a kick out of it. I know I did.