Give me liberty article New York Times 2019-08-22

Critic’s Pick

‘Give Me Liberty’ Review: A Wild Ride with a Virtuoso of Chaos
In this jolt of a movie, a driver and a passenger hurtle through Milwaukee together, finding each other as they open up a world.

Lauren Spencer (center in hood) in Kirill Mikhanovsky’s “Give Me Liberty” Credit Music Box Films

By Manohla Dargis
Published Aug. 22, 2019 - Updated Aug. 23, 2019

Give Me Liberty
Directed by Kirill Mikhanovsky
1h 50m

It can be nerve-racking how fast the van in “Give Me Liberty” hurtles through Milwaukee. Most of the time on this wild ride, the driver peers ahead as he white-knuckles it through the gray, wintry streets, past cars, houses, flashing lights. Every so often, he smokes a cigarette or grabs the radio handset, delivering another promise that he’ll break. “I’ll be there soon,” he says to dispatch as his passengers talk, shout and sing. “I should be there in 10.” The van is racing past a familiar reality while a more freewheeling, uncharted world bursts forth inside of it.

You first meet the driver, Vic (a soulful Chris Galust), in a cramped room, where he’s listening closely to a friend smoking in bed, identified only as his Confidant (James Watson), a profoundly disabled man with doe eyes who’s communing with Vic about love and other weighty issues. The Confidant is a philosopher of the heart whose words fill the room, swirling like the smoke from the cigarette that Vic takes from his mouth, tapping the ash before returning it to its perch. There’s no immediate point to the scene; in time, though, it reads like an epigraph and a declaration of intent.
As the Confidant holds forth, the quiet, watchful Vic sits near the edge of the bed. This geometry of bodies — the meditative disabled man and his attentive able-bodied friend — is echoed by the storytelling. Vic offers the most obvious way into “Give Me Liberty” but he isn’t exactly its protagonist. Rather, over the course of the fast-spinning story, he retreats as other characters move to the fore. At times, he becomes more passenger than driver on a narrative journey that includes a gaggle of disruptive elderly mourners, a softhearted boxer (a fantastic Max Stoianov) and a woman, Tracy (a terrific Lauren Spencer, who, like Galust, is a nonprofessional performer).

Chris Galust is Vic, the van driver, in “Give Me Liberty.”CreditMusic Box Films

The story shifts into focus when Vic stops to pick up Tracy, an advocate for people with disabilities who has A.L.S. and uses a motorized wheelchair. (Spencer does as well.) He’s late — he has had a comically rough and raucous morning — and she’s come equipped with a sword, an atmosphere-thickening item that the movie doesn’t belabor. The sword scarcely matters as much as Tracy’s righteous anger; doubtless it isn’t as cutting. Tracy relies on accessibility rides to get around the city and Vic has made her late for an appointment. She’s on her way to help with a meeting for Steve (Steve Wolski), another passenger who soon gets in the van, joining what becomes an often hilariously unruly crowd that ebbs and flows as the story zigs and zags
“Give Me Liberty” is a jolt of a movie, at once kinetic and controlled. It’s an anarchic deadpan comedy that evolves into a romance just around the time the story explodes. It has moments of unembellished realism as well as a fictional story line that runs through the bedlam. With its contrasting modes and moods, it pushes and pulls you, rocking you back and forth like one of the van’s swaying passengers, creating an agreeable uncertainty. You’re never sure where it’s headed as it careens all over the place, to homes, offices, a center for people with disabilities and then down one more street.
The director Kirill Mikhanovsky is a Russian immigrant whose family landed in Milwaukee after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (One of his jobs was driving medical transport for people with disabilities.) This is only his second feature, although you wouldn’t know it from how seamlessly he navigates the movie’s numerous spinning and almost colliding parts — its people with their different needs, their firm opinions and heartfelt frailties — all while bringing Vic and Tracy closer together at each turn. Working from a screenplay he wrote with Alice Austen (who’s also a producer), Mikhanovsky proves to be a virtuoso of chaos. When he plunges you into the churn it’s as if he were saying, “Isn’t this mess we call life glorious?”
This is tricky terrain, and could have been disastrous, particularly given that the movies have a lousy track record when it comes to stories about people with disabilities. At times, it seems as if Mikhanovsky is willfully working himself into impossible corners, most notably at the center where some of the clients are performing in a talent show. Vic stops there after a van passenger — one of the mourners who are circuitously en route to a funeral (long, funny story) — has a blood-sugar issue, prompting a leisurely detour during the story’s full-throttle rush forward.
Not a whole lot seems to happen at the center. The candy dispenser is empty, but the room spills over with life. A woman sings “Rock Around the Clock”; a man with an American flag on his jacket belts “Born in the U.S.A.” As Vic and some of the van passengers wander, a few of the mourners use walkers or canes, the movie lingers on the diverse faces of the clientele. Some look attentive while others seem distant; each, the movie underscores, is just a person in the room. And then Vic stops to watch as one man (Gregory Merzlak) draws kaleidoscopic pictures, a rainbow of trees or perhaps Fourth of July fireworks. Similar pictures are in Vic’s apartment, you realize, giving it bursts of color.
In another movie, this suggestion that Vic’s life has been enriched by people with disabilities might easily become fodder for a heroic tale about his difficulties, his triumph, his spirit. Here, Vic is also just a person in the room, as well as a conduit to a world too little seen in the movies. Not everything works as persuasively. There are too many drives around the block and some late, on-the-nose politics. That scarcely matters as Mikhanovsky gathers together the whirring parts and settles on Vic and Tracy’s searching, delicately nuanced relationship. It’s moving and sincere, suffused with tenderness and marked by a quiet that suggests that each has found a safe harbor in the other. That may sound corny; it’s not — it’s irresistible.