Film Review

Give Me Liberty

todayMarch 14, 2024 21

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By – Gareth Jones

For fans of Cassavetes-style dramas, disabled representation, films set in Milwaukee! 

Right from the start, director Kirill Mikhanovsky plunges us into the chaotic life of medical transport driver Vic (played well by Chris Galust), as he is already behind picking up and dropping off clients. His clients are people with disabilities, but on this day, he is also trying to help out his Russian grandfather and all of his Russian friends get to the funeral of his grandfather’s girlfriend.  These two worlds collide on the same day that there is also a street protest about the killing of a black man by police in Milwaukee.  All of this frenetic activity is presented in a John Cassavetes realistic style that is unnerving but also very complementary to the themes of the film.

Kirill brings his own experience as an immigrant who was born in Moscow, but ended up moving to Milwaukee and attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (hence a strong knowledge and representation of this wonderful, but sharply divided town.)  While a student there, he actually drove a medical transport as a means of paying for college and drove people with disabilities to their daily appointments and errands.  All of this lends the film a level of authenticity that cannot be doubted.  The film presents a broken system that relies on the kindness of strangers to get things done. 

The film also achieves authenticity by casting actors with disabilities in the roles of characters with disabilities.  Sadly, this is still a rarity.  In this case, there are the residents of the Eisenhower Center, a large support facility for people with learning and physical disabilities that relies on the medical transport system to get around.  This includes folks that Vic is trying to get to the talent show at the center as well as the job counselor who is also disabled. This character is played by Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, who has ALS, and is phenomenal in this role.  Outside of acting, she is an influencer and artist, but here she gets to represent an independent person who is forced to deal with the ineptitude and incompetence of the system that underfunds support systems that give people with disabilities their liberty.  The film does not hide how it is confronting the challenging day-to-day existence of those ignored and or denied by the broken environment.

The handheld and disruptive cinematography is shot by Wyatt Garfield, who was a cameraman for a similar film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, especially from a naturalistic aesthetic but also in the casting of non professional actors in many roles. In fact, Behn Zeitlin, the director of Beasts, is listed as an executive director. In this case, the cast is real, as in real Russians, real people with disabilities, and real residents of Milwaukee.  Along the way the professional actors blend in seamlessly. It is not an easy watch but does something magical in its intersectionality. Here, it does not feel forced.  Mikhanovsky pulled from his real life and from real places. Milwaukee was having protests, and the film like the characters can’t escape that fact.  He shows us the divide in Milwaukee that needs to be healed as it does in the country as a whole.

It is a challenging film, but tells an important story about real lives. Some of my favorite moments include the Russian contingency singing Russian songs throughout, including an unnamed accordionist who also plays background music at the talent show, and the talent show as a whole.. Spend a few hours with them and see if it does not help you build empathy and an understanding of how connected we all are.

Available to stream on several free services like TUBI

Written by: Gareth Jones

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