An energetic and chaotic journey into the lives of a group of people in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Give Me Liberty is an unabashedly frenzied and scattershot experience with a big heart at its centre and a desire to be both honest and sincere with its subject matter.
Give Me Liberty centres on a medical transport driver named Vic (Chris Galust), a generally quiet and accommodating man in his mid-20s, and his frantic attempts to stay on top of both his work and personal life while trying to drive clients to where they need to go. While Vic gets most of the spotlight, there is also an ensemble cast, and no matter how small their part, director Kirill Mikhanovsky is at pains to portray each of them as complex and layered people and does so with aplomb. The sense of reality he achieves, together with an unrelenting pace and very snappy editing, contributes to an overall work that does not have one simple aim but many-layered aims in one. This is part of the reason why the film runs the gamut of emotions, veering from heart-warming and amusing to frustrating to awkward to tense within minutes.
Juggling so many conflicting stories with only a vaguely episodic structure to rely on is an achievement in itself, and overall, Mikhanovsky does a good job of holding the film together as it strains against the seams and threatens to fall apart. Then again, that ramshackle sensibility is part of what makes the film so watchable. It mirrors the way Vic is pulled in different directions, the way he has to put up with a veritable onslaught of admonishment, pleas for help and general bickering, and the way he just about manages to keep it together through it all. This is where Galust shines, excellently portraying a man on the brink of letting his stoic mask fall. Vic lets most of the chaos wash over him, focusing instead on trying to do everything he has been asked to without thinking of the potential cost to him, something that is regularly anxiety-inducing as the viewer lives through the barrage with him.
In general, the performances are fantastic. Lauren ‘Lolo’ Spencer is another standout as Tracy, a confident and assertive woman with ALS, whose plight we feel keenly as the film progresses. Whereat first, she seems to be just another point of stress for Vic, Mikhanovsky, and co-writer Alice Austen, work to define her, giving us a sense that she herself is also dealing with her own problems and frustrations. These moments begin in frenetic and urgent sequences that portray the sheer panic and turmoil that Vic is in constantly, counterbalanced against how painfully long it takes for anything he wants to actually happen. Tracy, who is one of Vic’s clients, is just as outraged as the others at first and contributes to the tension as the walls close around Vic by being another dissenting voice, but soon her own stark reality starts to come through. The story does not shy away from changing focus when other narrative threads carry more weight.
There is a sense of sincerity in the way the film seeks to portray its many characters, and the same is true of its portrayal of disability. Vic encounters many different kinds of people through his work, and the film portrays them earnestly, giving each of them personalities and complexity, ensuring there is a distinct sense of realism in their interactions with each other and Vic. There is no sense here that they are merely props on Vic’s journey; instead, they are keen parts of an ensemble cast that provide layers to the overall work. This, together with the intense, often handheld cinematography, again lends an air of realism to every interaction, as they all feel substantive in some sense.
Mikhanovsky also covers a plethora of other themes, such as the immigrant experience and the social justice movement. He is especially strong in his portrayal of the immigrant experience: Vic attempts to navigate his Russian family while trying to do his job, catering to their needs whenever he can, but also growing increasingly frustrated at the disparities in their lived realities in America. The way Mikhanovsky juxtaposes that sense of love and frustration for a family with whom there is a disconnect concerning how the world is viewed is very well done. Those scenes again bring with them a keen sense of empathy and pathos mixed in with the urgency and frustration.
The events of the film take place amidst the backdrop of protests against police violence. While it forms a pervasive and important element in the film, this is perhaps an area where the film’s scattershot approach to its themes suffers slightly, lacking time to explore those themes in great detail. Nevertheless, despite the feeling that it might be incomplete in this regard, the majority of the film is well handled and nuanced, focusing on the characters and how they experience those events.
Overall, Give Me Liberty contains plenty to be impressed by. It’s a marvel it manages to hang together as well as it does, considering its commitment to a furiously kinetic narrative structure. There is humour to be found in there amidst the carnage and lots of examination of what it means to act with humanity or to try to help others despite the consequences. The people in Give Me Liberty don’t feel like characters, they feel like real people in the world, and that is its greatest achievement.
Dir: Kirill Mikhanovsky
Scr: Kirill Mikhanovsky, Alice Austen
Cast: Chris Galust, Lauren ‘Lolo’ Spencer, Maksim Stoyanov, Michelle Caspar, Arkady Basin, Zoya Makhlina
DOP: Wyatt Garfield
Run time: 110 minutes
Give Me Liberty will be screened at this year’s Hebden Bridge Film Festival (March 19th-21st)