movie review

Tyrel Is a Subtle — Then Brutally Effective — Portrait of Racial Alienation

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

It was hard not to see the blurb for Sebastián Silva’s Tyrel at the Sundance Film Festival in January of this year, as Get Out was doing its awards lap, and feel a little bit of déjà vu. Tyler (Jason Mitchell), a black man, the summary tells us, heads upstate with an all-white crew for a weekend that gets out of hand in some way or another. (The deftly brutal title comes from a momentary misunderstanding of his name early in the film.) But Silva’s film is more modest in scale, and thus gets time to explore even more of the kind of murky, almost imperceptible little aggressions and performances its characters do for each other, and needn’t build to literal horror to be wrenching in its own regard (though it certainly could have!).

What makes Tyrel so effective is that the dilemma of Mitchell’s character would have worked even without the “when you’re the only one” setup. The film opens with Tyler and Johnny (Christopher Abbott) rolling a pooped-out sedan down an icy dirt road in the Catskills. Their destination is a house owned by Nico (Nicolas Arze) for a birthday celebration for Johnny’s friend Pete (human incarnation of acid reflux disease — and I mean that in a good way — Caleb Landry Jones). Everyone else knows each other but Tyler, and rarely have I seen a depiction of just feeling left out at a party so observant and dead-on. The moments Silva gives Tyler alone say everything: heading to bed hours before everyone else, finding comfort in the acceptance of the household dog, the moment you step out and just barely catch someone making an underhanded joke about you in the next room. It’s painful, paranoiac stuff, and your heart breaks for Tyler, who feels increasingly trapped among a crew of rowdy, drunk, irreverent white dudes, as these little injustices mount.

But the issue of Tyler’s race — rarely addressed explicitly but of course always in the room — compounds all the garden-variety alienation. Early in the film, the boys gather round the fireplace for a game that can only be described as Problematic Celebrity: They pass around a bowl filled with accents and “types” — Indian! Chinese! — to impersonate. Tyler absolutely wants no part in the game, but doesn’t know these people well enough to do anything more than try to laugh it off. When they eventually goad him into doing a “Black New Orleans Grandma” impression, the room eats it up, and we and Tyler feel a pit form in our stomach. Meanwhile, Dylan (Roddy Bottum), the sole gay man in the group, is the only one whose discomfort with the game matches Tyler’s, but the possibility of him as an ally is repeatedly floated and betrayed throughout the film — something so theoretically nice as intersectional solidarity is not necessarily on the table here.

The next day, heightened chaos arrives in the form of Alan (Michael Cera), a rich kid Tyler takes a liking to without noticing (or perhaps choosing not to notice) the dicey way in which Alan relates to him and his race. Hey, at least he addresses it at all, we can feel Tyler thinking as he proceeds to get shit-faced with the rich kid. From there, all the paranoia that’s been building — particularly between Tyler and Johnny, gets sent through a fun-house mirror, and soon Tyler finds himself more alone than ever. Silva makes a chamber orchestra of unconscious prejudice and passive-aggression out of his all-bro ensemble, with Mitchell’s performance as the violin solo at the center of it that grows from a tentative tremolo to lonesome wail.

Tyrel Is a Brutally Effective Portrait of Racial Alienation