The Art of Self Defense: Review by @Kush_Hayes
Before last week, I wasnt familiar with writer director Riley Sterns or his body of work but now after seeing The Art of Self Defense from Bleecker Street Films I cant wait to see what it is he does next. This is a story about misfits, hierarchy, cult of personality, and basically wanting to belong to something whether its good or bad for you.
Our protagonist of this story is Casey played by Jessie Eisenberg and the casting is perfect. I dont know why Jessie Eiesenberg plays “awkward AND pathetic” so well. One might even say its definitely a type casting. I say if its working use it which is also one of the rules of the stripmall karate dojo in our movie. We discover that he’s not just lonely but also alone. He has a very regimented schedule. His only friend is his dachshund. At work, the guys he tries to interact with push him out of the room. And while the boss is trying to help Casey be a person, even Casey doesnt want to hang out with his boss.
When we meet Casey, he is sitting alone at a cafe and we are more focused on a young French couple speaking their native dialect, doing what most couples do and thats make up stories about someone within their peripheral vision. This is actually a fun game to do with your significant other, just as long as the person you are talking about doesnt hear you. The couple, dresses him down in a most painful breakdown of his character to the point where theyre even estimating the size of his genitalia in centimeters. Again, because they are not speaking English, you assume he hears none of it as he reads his paper and finishes his breakfast. And as he enters his car the stereo turns on, and his Learn Advanced French CD comes on and you are officially heartbroken for this (half a) man as he drives to work, crying.
Eventually we get to the confrontation that puts him in the hospital and makes him officially afraid of the world we are in. Casey eventually shuts out the world to the point where he uses up all his PTO days, and as you can imagine from the third paragraph, he had quite a lot stored up.
He realizes that he is going about not just this but life all wrong. Upon waiting for his Gun Permit to clear, he decides to learn how to defend himself. He goes into his neighborhood dojo, and upon his first (free) lesson, is reawakened and maybe alive for the first time in his life. This is where you start rooting for Casey, because he starts taking control of situations and events in his life, even cancelling his order for a handgun once the background check on his permit came back clean.
We go deeper into the story from there, learning about the characters of the dojo including Sensei, played by Alessandro Nivola and Anna, played by Imojen Poots. Much like our Writer/Director, I know nothing of these two before this movie, but thanks to the power of really good casting, I feel like I will be seeing more of these two in the near future. Sensei who owns the karate gym, is one of the greatest Carnys Ive every seen on screen. He has an answer for every question, be it right or wrong, or still right, but explained unnecessarily complicated. He’s always on the con in this movie to where I'm almost surprised he isnt running a Shell Game outside the dojo. And always manipulating not just the situation but his best students in the dojo.
One of those manipulated is Anna as mentioned before played by Imojen Poots. She should be the #1 of the dojo, but keeps getting overlooked simply because shes a woman, and the only woman in the school. She knows shes the ‘best in the school’, maybe even better than Sensei, but because it is a male dominated environment and she loves & respects the Art so much, she also allows situations to happen to her… except for the one time she didnt… which is a very well performed monologue.
As mentioned above, part of this movie explores the cult of personality that goes on in these tiny karate studios. Everyone in this bubble follows the one alpha, and even when they know s/he is wrong still agree with it because they are the alpha and therefore never wrong. And things get ugly in these situations. Very ugly if they get out of hand. Its not just martial arts studios, but all sorts of small alternative communities within society.
The story and the acting is what drives the movie forward in this 1hr 45min package. I want to say that the visuals arent anything spectacular, but then I recall things like Learn French CD, and other “blink and youll miss them details” that are so integral to this film. I was engaged throughout this whole event. My attention was never unfocused, including the full house audience that surrounded me.
This is a fantastic movie that I think a lot of people can relate too, whether or not theyve ever taken that one free karate lesson at the Galleria. It comments on negative hierarchies, what it means to be a man as well as toxic masculinity and itll even make you laugh, a lot.
This is going to be in my top ten for 2019.
Five out of Six Blueberries