Tyrel movie review: A tense social satire about race

It’s both unavoidable and a bit unfair to compare writer-director Sebastian Silva’s squirm-inducing new indie Tyrel to last year’s Get Out. In most ways, they couldn’t be more different. But in at least one major one, they’re companion pieces about race, otherness, and slights both actual and perceived.

Jason Mitchell, who broke out in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton and has time and again proven himself to be no fluke, stars as a young African-American chef in New York City named Tyler. And the joke of the film’s title — which is tossed off, but still carries a sharp sting — comes when he joins his friend Johnny (Girls’ Christopher Abbott) on a weekend getaway to the Catskills where Johnny’s all-white group of pals are celebrating the birthday of Pete, a rowdy loose cannon played by Caleb Landry Jones (providing yet another Get Out connection). Tyler, already on guard from the racial make-up of the group, is called “Tyrel” by one of Johnny’s drunken frat-bro pals. Was it just an innocent mistake? Perhaps. But it sets the already uncomfortable Tyler on edge for what may be in store for the next 48 hours. His antennae are up.

As the weekend progresses, Tyler tries to fit in with this close-knit circle he doesn’t know and doesn’t have much in common with. And as white-guy rockers REM blare from the turntable, the drinking games gets progressively macho and sloppy, and the veiled comments pile up, Tyler’s paranoia (or is it?) progressively simmers to the boiling point. Silva smartly refuses to make the slights Tyler feels too black and white. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk. But you never really know whether Tyler’s just being overly sensitive or if there’s some real underlying racist agenda at work. By the time Michael Cera arrives, as a super-rich, straight-talking loon in a fur coat, the movie has settled into an excitedly anxiety-fueled groove.

Where Silva is slightly less successful is when he telegraphs things too much. The weekend happens to fall during the inauguration of Donald Trump. And even though it only seems to unfold in the background barely within earshot, it’s unnecessary extra baggage that’s a little too on the nose. Tyler is definitely an outsider, but it’s at least partially of his own making — especially after he has too much to drink himself. Still, Mitchell handles the ambiguities of the role with impressive nuance, even if the rest of the film doesn’t always match his subtlety. In the end, Tyrel is a tense social satire that speaks to its moment even if it ends with a fizzle instead of the cathartic gut-punch you’re waiting for. B

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