Give Me Liberty


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Give Me Liberty
"Disabled people just haven't had this kind of representation." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Give Me Liberty, Kirill Mikhanovsky and Alice Austen's tale of a young medical transport driver trying to get his clients from A to B and deal with family problems at the same time, is officially billed as a comedy. it's certainly rich in absurdity but disabled viewers who are used to dealing with similar frustrations on a daily basis may not find it as easy to laugh. That's not to say that the film fails this audience - quite the contrary - but it is likely to play quite differently to different groups of people.

Vic (Chris Galust) has one job: to pick up his disabled clients and get them where they need to go at the start of the day. When a bus scheduled to take his elderly Russian grandfather to a funeral fails to arrive, however, he is talked into giving the old man and several of his friends a lift, along with former boxer turned fixer/scam artist Dima (Maxim Stoyanov, one of few professional actors on board). Complications ensue.

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When one is living with a serious disability, one of the most frustrating things is how long everything takes. Tracy (Lauren 'Lolo' Spencer) just wants to get to work, where she's supposed to be organising a job interview for another disabled man, Steve (Steve Wolski). When Vic protests that the funeral-goers are depending on him she snaps back "What about the people depending on me?" and it's one of those moments in cinema, like Noomi Rapace crashing into a basement armed with a golf club, when the ground shifts, because disabled people just haven't had this kind of representation. Tracy is young, smart, good looking, much more professional than anyone else we meet and absolutely not willing to take shit from anybody. Spencer (who is herself disabled, like everyone cast in these roles) has tremendous presence and remains fiery throughout as Tracy wrestles with romantic problems, calls out racism, deals with her dependent mother and gradually sees the day that she had planned slide further and further out of control.

There are moments here when disabled viewers will wince in horror, such as when Dima lifts Tracy out of her chair without stopping to check if that's safe for her, and moments which anyone who has looked after confused elderly relatives will relate to, such as Vic trying to extract his father from a smoke-filled house amid protests that the chicken isn't fully cooked yet. The immigrant experience is as important to the film as disability, with Vic trying to manoeuvre around family rituals, special occasions and cultural misunderstandings as well as defusing conflicts around the politics of long ago from places now far away. There's also a visit to a disability centre where the culture of supporting everyone's efforts conceals the fact that at least one attendee has real talent, his drawings of trees bringing a flush of bright colour into a film that is predominantly painted in the hues of tarmac and mud.

There's some beautiful deadpan comedy on display here and Mikhanovsky has coaxed impressive delivery out of his amateur cast, though viewers may still feel the claustrophobic environment of the bus getting overwhelming, especially during the first half. Towards the end, when key characters again have to deal with a high pressure situation in the middle of a crowd, sound and vision slip out of sync and we are lost for a while in the press of bodies in a scene that vividly captures the terror of lacking physical control in a situation where other people are behaving chaotically. This is another powerful means of communicating the experiences of disabled people as active participants in the world, and one hopes that able-bodied viewers will grasp it. There is no seeking after pity here, rather a call for recognition of the toughness required to face such challenges day after day - and, yes, the absurdity of it all.

As sharp as it is blunt, Give Me Liberty is a bravura piece of filmmaking. Although it's not always successful, it delivers a swift kick to an industry that has sidelined characters like these for far too long.

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2019
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When a riot breaks out in Milwaukee, America's most segregated city, medical transport driver Vic is torn between his promise to get a group of elderly Russians to a funeral and his desire to help Tracy, a young black woman with ALS.

Director: Kirill Mikhanovsky

Writer: Alice Austen, Kirill Mikhanovsky

Starring: Maxim Stoyanov, Lauren 'Lolo' Spencer, Chris Galust, Maxim Stoyanov, Lauren 'Lolo' Spencer, Chris Galust

Year: 2019

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: US

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