THE SUBJECT – Review by Liz Braun

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Every serious film-goer knows that a movie with a weak start rarely improves.

This makes The Subject a huge exception to the rule, as this debut feature from director Lanie Zipoy and writer Chisa Hutchinson has a lacklustre beginning and an unexpectedly powerful second half.

The Subject concerns a documentary filmmaker with a guilty conscience. He has become well known and has won awards for a documentary about a Harlem teenager, but it’s a film that includes the death of its subject.

Jason Biggs stars as filmmaker Phil Waterhouse, a white guy who has made his reputation documenting the lives of black kids. His award-winning film is being followed up with a series for HBO on the same subject.

Is it exploitation? Racial voyeurism? The filmmaker grapples with all that, but it takes a long time to establish what’s on his mind. Themes of race and class abound, but only much later does another character take Phil’s euphemistic talk about documentary — that it should be “eventful” and “interesting” — and translate the genre’s attractions under Phil’s aegis to mean, “Things are gonna be fucked up.”

He sees possible social relevance in his work; some see instead the privileged gawking at poverty and violence in the lives of “others”.

Phil starts shooting his new HBO series and is alarmed to realize that someone is secretly filming him— in both his personal and his professional lives.

Meanwhile, he keeps watching segments of his old documentary, going over footage in the hope of understanding his culpability in the gang killing of his young subject.

That gives us a film within a film, and the observer being observed; so far it all plays like a poor man’s version of Michael Haneke’s 2005 drama, Cache.

It’s tough to engage much with Phil, or his girlfriend (Anabelle Acosta) or his sexy new assistant Marley (Carra Patterson) and their garden variety domestic issues.

Still, there are sequences that make you sit up and take notice, like the footage of Phil and his documentary subject trading places, with the young man filming Phil; the teenager, Malcolm (Nile Bullock), asks why he too couldn’t be a filmmaker, to which Phil, reflexively condescending, lays out a definition of art — as well as the status quo.

(The way Phil’s assistant, Marley, reacts to this footage, suggests what’s involved in overcoming the racial barriers that are part of Hollywood filmmaking. It’s either a killing indictment of the whole system or she’s just a bad person. Maybe both.)

At the moment when Aunjanue Ellis enters the story, this thing finally catches fire.

As Leslie Barnes, Ellis plays a character with a vested interest in Phil’s filmmaking, and once she enters the fray, it all gets real.

The second half of The Subject is just Jason Biggs and Aunjanue Ellis, and her performance takes this drama to a whole different level, transforming Bigg’s work in the process. The film is uneven, but these two performances are compelling, and Ellis is entirely riveting here; cinematographer Darren Joe has the good sense to keep the camera on Ellis’ face.

The movie draws to a close with scenes that are arresting and maybe exploitative, which leaves a viewer wondering about his own role in all of this. The overall sense of The Subject — which is timely and important, if not entirely satisfying — is one of standing in a hall of mirrors.

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Liz Braun

Liz Braun has contributed entertainment stories in print and on radio and TV in Canada for 30 years. She served as film critic for the Toronto Sun and for the Postmedia chain of newspapers.