Title: Restless City
Director: Andrew Dosunmu
Starring: Sy Alassane, Nicole Grey, Tony Okungbowa, Danai Gurira
Strikingly photographed but dramatically inert, “Restless City” chronicles the story of a young African immigrant trying to make it on the mean streets of New York City. In a bit of a case of the emperor’s new clothes, praise for this art-minded cinematic import recalls Andrew Sarris’ “Russian Tea Room Syndrome,” which posits that sophisticated cineastes will willingly accept in a foreign (or foreign-contextualized) film the sorts of lapses in character and story that in an American film they would utterly reject, basically for the sake of appearing cultured.
A “Next” section selection at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, director Andrew Dosunmu’s movie centers around Djbirl (Sy Alassane), a 21-year-old Senegalese immigrant who lives on the margins in Harlem. He deeply loves music, and so while practicing and making some of his own he also starts selling bootleg CDs down on Canal Street. When he falls for one of the prostitutes, Trini (Nicole Grey), overseen by his gangland boss Bekay (Tony Okungbowa), Djbirl finally has someone else who believes in him a bit. He eventually takes a more respectable job as a courier, and Trini begins to work at a hair salon, but the shared shadows of their collective pasts won’t make it easy for the pair to escape the dark swirl of corruption, poverty and moral decay that characterizes the world in which they’ve lived.
Praise, or even tacit acceptance, of “Restless City” is largely predicated upon a blanket dismissal of its faults, and a harping instead upon the aspirant thematic qualities it peddles. (In his festival review of the movie for “Hollywood Reporter,” Duane Bygre deemed it “a stunning slant on the Horatio Alger myth.”) The fact is, however, that this is a tediously familiar story, and one not elevated one iota by imaginative dialogue and scenario or nuanced performances.
Less explicitly a crime tale than many of the other fringes-of-society/underclass pictures which it glancingly recalls (“Tsotsi,” “Shottas” or “Viva Riva!”), “Restless City” is a kind of African immigrant’s version of Gabriel Diamond and Zack Barnett’s “Less,” which has yet to break out of the festival circuit. It’s a grimy lost verse of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” a movie concerned with locating the maybe quiet nobility in hand-to-mouth existence, and struggle for self-betterment. This is an admirable pursuit, especially in theory, but it makes for a grinding and ponderous experience as rendered here.
As artfully captured by cinematographer Bradford Young, the film is often gorgeous to look at, and exudes a rapturous vibe that’s reminiscent of a first adolescent trip to a big or foreign city, where colors and smells and new sounds assault one’s senses, creating a dizzy experiential symphony. In this respect, “Restless City” certainly lives up to its title; it bottles and conveys a certain tone and energy. Even at a slender 80 minutes, however, the movie drags, marching inexorably to an ending that even an eight-year-old could intuit.
Written by: Brent Simon