There are some jobs that most people take for granted. Being a dial-a-ride driver— the men and women who operate specialized vans carrying disabled, elderly or impoverished people — is one of them.
The new movie “Give Me Liberty” helps change that perception by focusing on a young Russian immigrant named Vic, who frantically hurtles through Milwaukee on a day that’s both harrowing for his passengers and for viewers, and all too much of a dangerous routine for him. Paced at breakneck speed, with richly drawn characters and utterly unpredictable situations, it plays like a darkly comic version of the vastly underseen 1999 Nicolas Cage-Martin Scorsese film “Bringing Out the Dead.”
It also feels as if Quentin Tarantino opted to return to his low-budget roots and make a gritty cinema verité style film on the topic. What makes this movie, now playing at Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, utterly amazing is that its entire cast is comprised of actors in their debut roles and was made by a writer-director team that’s also making its debut narrative film after a career in documentaries.
The movie follows a day in the life of Vic (Chris Galust), a twentysomething man who’s the son of an immigrant single mother who’s always expressing her concern about him. She wants him to attend music school and be a professional cello player, but he doesn’t have the desire to do so.
Instead, Vic finds purpose in helping numerous disadvantaged people get around Milwaukee using his transport van. It’s only supposed to be used for disabled people, but Vic’s a softie, and on the day the film is set he quickly gets overwhelmed by agreeing to take a group of several elderly Russians to a burial site so they can stage an impromptu funeral for a woman who spent her life without any family.
At the same time, Vic also has the clients he’s supposed to be helping aboard. That includes Tracy (Lauren “Lolo” Spencer in an Oscar-worthy performance of vast yet subtle emotional range), an African-American woman with ALS and a motorized wheelchair who has to get to her job as a social worker for disabled people.
Then there’s a mentally challenged woman who keeps practicing her off-key rendition of “Rock Around the Clock” while frantically begging Vic to make sure he attends her daycare center’s talent show. Add in a client of Tracy’s who can barely speak but keeps complaining about being late for a job interview, and a jovial Russian hustler named Dima (Maksim Stoyanov) who keeps adding to the chaos, and you’ve got a non-stop comic rollercoaster that’s the wildest movie I’ve seen in years.
The Sunday night audience I saw “Liberty” with at Laemmle’s Santa Monica theater was packed with a wide range of men and women of multiple races and different ages, all exploding with laughter or gasping with surprise throughout. The magic of casting unknowns in a movie like this, then setting it in a city that’s rarely portrayed in films, makes this feel bracingly real and raises the stakes to an infinite level.
The best part of it all is that American writer Alice Austen teamed with the film’s Russian director, the one-named Mikhanovsky, to provide an outsider’s view of American society that feels completely relatable and even transformative. Throughout the film, different cultures clash, as the African-American Tracy resents all the Russians who are illicitly aboard the van, while the Russians initially recoil in fear at having to drive through her neighborhood.
But as this improbable mix of humanity shares in one hilarious, dangerous misadventure after another, they are forced to drop their personal walls and appreciate each other. In a time in which a highly divisive president seeks to keep people apart with imposing barriers, a movie like this Sundance Film Fest sensation can bring people together.
“Give Me Liberty” is a must-see. Take some friends. Spread the word.
“Give Me Liberty”: A