Comedy, 110 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
It can be nerve-racking how fast the van in Give Me Liberty, directed by Kirill Mikhanovsky, hurtles through Milwaukee. Most of the time on this wild ride, the driver peers ahead as he white-knuckles it through the gray, wintry streets, past cars, houses, flashing lights. Every so often, he smokes a cigarette or grabs the radio handset, delivering another promise that he’ll break. “I’ll be there soon,” he says to dispatch as his passengers talk, shout, and sing. “I should be there in 10.” The van is racing past a familiar reality while a more freewheeling, uncharted world bursts forth inside of it.
You first meet the driver, Vic (a soulful Chris Galust), in a cramped room, where he’s listening closely to a friend smoking in bed, identified only as Confidant ( James Watson), a profoundly disabled man with doe eyes who’s communing with Vic about love and other weighty issues. There’s no immediate point to the scene; in time, though, it reads like an epigraph and a declaration of intent.
As the Confidant holds forth, the quiet, watchful Vic sits near the edge of the bed. This geometry of bodies — the meditative disabled man and his attentive able-bodied friend — is echoed by the storytelling. At times, he becomes more passenger than driver on a narrative journey that includes a gaggle of disruptive elderly mourners, a softhearted boxer (a fantastic Max Stoyanov) and a woman, Tracy (a terrific Lauren Spencer, who, like Galust, is a non-professional performer).
The story shifts into focus when Vic stops to pick up Tracy, an advocate for people with disabilities who has Lou Gehrig’s disease and uses a motorized wheelchair. (Spencer does as well.) He’s late — he has had a comically rough and raucous morning — and she’s come equipped with a sword, an atmosphere-thickening item that the movie doesn’t belabor. The sword scarcely matters as much as Tracy’s righteous anger; doubtless it isn’t as cutting. Tracy relies on accessibility rides to get around the city and Vic has made her late for an appointment. She’s on her way to help with a meeting for Steve (Steve Wolski), another passenger who soon gets in the van, joining what becomes an often hilariously unruly crowd that ebbs and flows as the story zigs and zags.
Give Me Liberty is a jolt of a movie, at once kinetic and controlled. It’s an anarchic deadpan comedy that evolves into a romance just around the time the story explodes. It has moments of unembellished realism as well as a fictional storyline that runs through the bedlam. With its contrasting modes and moods, it pushes and pulls you, rocking you back and forth like one of the van’s swaying passengers, creating an agreeable uncertainty. You’re never sure where it’s headed as it careens all over the place, to homes, offices, a center for people with disabilities, and then down one more street.