The premise of The Subject sounds promising enough. A white documentarian, ravenous for authentic stories, makes a Black teenager from Harlem the subject of his film project. For months, he follows the slick-tongued, baby-faced young man with the easy smile, capturing his interactions with his family, friends and neighbors, pestering him with questions and eventually relaxing into a routine. This white filmmaker — his name is Phil Waterhouse, and he is played somewhat gawkily by Jason Biggs (American Pie) — is no saint, but he thinks of himself as a good person. That is, until he watches his subject, Malcolm Barnes (Nile Bullock), die in front of his eyes.
Phil does not save Malcolm, but the question of whether he could have done so drives this ultimately unsatisfying psychological thriller. The hazy (and ethically dubious) rules of documentary filmmaking clear Phil of any technical wrongdoing, or so he repeatedly insists. But guilt threatens the beleaguered documentarian like dark clouds before a storm, and he is unable to enjoy the critical and commercial success of his film about Malcolm or the rewards that follow — a new house and a deal with HBO to create a series. Strangers write lengthy blog posts accusing him of exploitation, and Malcolm’s family and community are left with a hole they are unable to fill.
The Bottom Line
A fascinating conceit that struggles to deliver.
Lanie Zipoy’s ambitious directorial debut, whose screenplay was written by playwright Chisa Hutchinson, teems with potential. The plot raises questions that, in the long shadow over matters of representation and Black people, seem especially prescient. Who gets to tell which stories is a question that reemerges every few years and continues to yield unimaginative answers. With its underwhelming performances, confusing pacing and at times wearisome dialogue, The Subject stumbles and struggles to break new ground.
The film’s opening sequence unconvincingly establishes it as a thriller. “Are you the one that’s been filming?” an ostensibly frightened Phil asks a minacious voice on the other end of the phone. “What do you want from me?” Backed by distracting music that’s meant to be ominous and is overlaid with loud banging noises, the voice asks Phil to open the door. After a close-up of Phil’s vaguely emotional eyes, The Subject cuts to its title card and a bleary-eyed Phil rewatching footage of Malcolm six weeks earlier.
Standing in front of a striking, multicolored mural, Malcolm, fresh-faced and confident, introduces himself as a “stone cold killer,” an admission that prompts Phil to interrupt the teenager and ask, quite stupidly, if he’s really a killer. Malcolm appropriately responds to this query with an exasperated eye roll. “I’m just asking an obvious question,” Phil quips defensively. “And I’m just giving you an obvious answer,” Malcolm retorts. Their dynamic — which we experience through old footage and Phil’s flashbacks — defies the clichéd narrative that the rest of the film falls into, in part because of Bullock’s performance. He affectingly captures the messiness of being a 15-year-old boy and the internal rupture caused when childhood instincts are replaced by a desperate aspirational machismo. He communicates, through raised eyebrows and knowing smirks, that Malcolm is ultimately unknowable to Phil, who is bent on seeing the teen as a tool for his own self-mythology.
What’s immediately clear in these early scenes is that watching this footage is a ritual for Phil, an exercise in self-flagellation. He is haunted by memories of Malcolm and unsettled by online accusations that he’s exploitative. But instead of reaching out to anyone connected to the dead teen, like his mother, Leslie (Aunjanue Ellis), Phil torments himself and his girlfriend, Jess (Anabelle Acosta), with his obsession.
Between watching old footage and seeking validation from Jess, Phil works on his next project, a series for HBO with thematic similarities to his previous film. His new subject is Kwame (Caleb Eberhardt), a braggadocious teen who’s eager to be on television and mired by conditions similar to those that Malcolm faced. They both grew up poor, do not know their fathers, and form intimate, sibling-like relationships with their male friends. We meet Kwame when Phil intervenes in the teen’s fight with a producer, Peter (Brian McManamon), who crossed a boundary by trying to speak to Kwame’s mother. “I set the rules,” Kwame yells, reminding the all-white film crew that interviewing his mother, who is dying of cancer, was not a part of the plan. Phil says he understands and proceeds to wax poetic about the power of Kwame’s story and his mother’s inevitable involvement. Kwame, understandably, rejects that narrative.
Power, accountability, boundaries and the relationship between artist and subject are just a few of the hot-button themes at the heart of The Subject. But the film struggles to engage them in a refreshing way; its flimsy secondary characters spew lines that, when experienced in quick succession, feel flat and tropey. A case could be made that these shallow portrayals are meant to mirror how Phil sees his subjects, but it’s hard to buy that by the third act, in which Phil and Leslie engage in a protracted and blunt exchange that becomes the most interesting part of the film. Phil grows increasingly unsympathetic, to the point that hating him feels like an act of generosity. With characters falling on such extreme opposites of the moral spectrum, The Subject begins to feel timid in the face of its material.
Zipoy’s adventurous vision and confidence is more apparent in The Subject‘s camerawork. Assisted by cinematographer Darren Joe, Zipoy mimics the cinéma vérité style of some documentaries and employs subtle color changes to affect the mood. Although the choices don’t always cohere — the shifts in color can feel distracting, and I would have welcomed more inspired footage of Harlem — the effort to experiment with visual language is evident.
One of the film’s weaker aspects is its strained effort to balance urgent themes while fulfilling the genre requirements of a thriller. Phil’s routines are occasionally haunted by a threatening person who has taken to calling his house and recording him while he’s at home. But it’s easy to forget that this is a focal point of the film as we move through other plot points, which include flashbacks of Phil and Malcolm, Phil hiring and then firing an assistant (played by Carra Patterson), and the death of Kwame’s mother.
It’s not until the third act that The Subject seems to step up to its own challenge. Running almost an hour, the final confrontation between Phil and Leslie takes a dramatic tonal shift and feels like an entirely different film. Ellis gives an affecting performance as a mother possessed by grief and attuned to how her pain will be read by an unsympathetic world. While the screenplay still relies on clichés to carry its arguments, the entire exchange feels more intentional than anything that precedes it, and confident in saying what it means.