Quite frequently during the Sundance Film Festival, there's one film that stands above the rest as the most out-there — the most madcap and "quirkiest" work in a festival known for quirk. Just think back to the Daniel Radcliffe–starring Swiss Army Man two years ago. This year, the honor goes to Sorry to Bother You, the Boots Riley–directed sci-fi/fantasy comedy starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson. Aside from being wacky, it's also built around so much social commentary that it won't just be the penises of the horse-people that stick with you once you've left the theater.
In Sorry to Bother You, Stanfield plays a man named Cassius Green who discovers that the secret to being a stellar telemarketer is to use his "white voice." He rises in the ranks quickly, at the same time that his peers — including his fiancé, Detroit, played by Thompson, and friends, played by Steven Yeun and Jermaine Fowler — are organizing for a union for fair pay at the company. As Cassius rises through the ranks — or descends, depending on how you see it — the film gets more and more surreal. When Cassius makes a phone call, he literally crashes through the living room of the person at the other end of the line. Whenever someone uses their "white voice," a literal white person's voice is dubbed over the actor's. There are also, as previously mentioned, hybrid human-horse people. We'll leave the details of that one for a later time — but yes, you do see their penises.
The whole film is anchored by a distinctive style, aided by costume designer Deirdra Elizabeth Govan and production designer Jason Kisvarday. And it's all an experience. "I find that in a lot of sci-fi, even though that's where people with a lot of radical ideas hide, it sometimes doesn't serve [that]," Riley said during a Sorry to Bother You panel on Sunday. "It's so much of a different world that you can say 'Whatever, it doesn't matter,' because it has no connection to our world unless you think about it really hard." Riley used the example of the first Star Wars film, which, he says, was both revolutionary and not. "It doesn't really help us," he said. "And that's partially because it's so removed from us."
When it came time to make his own film after decades in the music business, Riley took a different approach to the genre. "In using those ideas of trying to talk about things in analogous terms, I start with the real world," he said. "And any time something becomes too cliché to say, or too hard to say in a concise manner, I look for ways to see if fantasy might explain it better."
In Sorry to Bother You, those themes heavily involve activism and the price of self-centered complicity in harmful systems. As Cassius becomes more and more steeped in those systems, the film becomes more and more deranged around him. Riley hopes that people will take note of the film's pro-union stance and use Cassius's journey as inspiration. "This is a movie that organizers can use to talk to people about the movements that they're in," he said. "They can use it as a way to fertilize the soil of the plants they're growing. It's not a paint-by-the-numbers sort of movie that you might expect to be good for that, like, 'Here is a movement, here is how you do it' ...This is a movie that is strange, and weird, and interesting, and people will want to talk about it. Hopefully, organizers of these movements that are trying to grow and figure out what they can do, they can use movies like this."
Take it from Riley: If you're going to make use of horse-people dicks onscreen, make it count.