Sundance 2016: A Refreshing, Serene Visit to The Free World

By  · Published on February 1st, 2016

Follow all of our Sundance 2016 coverage.

It can take a moment to catch up with the context of certain exchanges in actor-turned-director Jason Lew’s behind the camera debut, The Free World. Lew, also the writer of this serene film, plays his dialogues unhurriedly, allowing room for the denotation of even the smallest talks to linger. The film opens with one such scene (and there are more of them later), where we find Mo Lundy–Gone Girl’s lowlife thief and The Skeleton Twins’ comically sexy scuba instructor Boyd Holbrook, adrift and wounded– muttering tender words of wisdom while the camera stays fixed on him, not revealing his audience. As the distant but audible dog barks hint, we discover his company is no other than a beautiful dog with soulful eyes, craving a renewed sense of assurance and security. Lugging an air of earned wisdom, he soothingly comforts the rescue in the cage, promising his continued company to be the remedy of the fear the dog must be feeling. Mo might be talking to the dog, but it’s evident he’s also talking to (and about) himself.

Programmed under the US Dramatic Competition in this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this peacefully affecting film –at least until its slightly overpowering finale arrives- announces imminent diminutive moments early on, to be lived and shared by misunderstood people and animals in need of a second chance, despite being surrounded by quick judgment, cruelty and prejudice. Would the unity of such souls end well, or lead to further catastrophe for everyone involved? The answer of it depends on one’s luck, and in Lew’s film, there doesn’t seem to be much of it to go around.

The story follows Mo, starting from the aforementioned scene set in a dog shelter. We soon find out about his past as an ex convict, with nearly two decades served in a prison due to an unpronounced heinous crime he didn’t commit. Innocent he might be, but he’s far from angelic, as we are told in dribs and drabs. He’s got himself into trouble in prison –and violently so– on more than one occasion, until he got introduced to and accepted Islam, and assumed the name of Mohamed. Now in this shelter with creatures of misfortune going through recovery such as him, he finds solace and purpose without excess or gluttonous indulgences. His closest ally is his kindhearted shelter coworker/supervisor, Linda, whose brief but evocative scenes are played emotively by an underutilized Octavia Spencer.

Mo’s temporary tranquility gets disturbed by the appearance of a murderer –Doris– (Elisabeth Moss, expressive) and an abusive male cop, who bring a dog brutally beaten by the cop over to the shelter. (Dog lovers: beware. It won’t be easy to swallow this poor being’s condition and pain, though we thankfully don’t get to see cruelty in action.) “Things don’t get settled outside the way they do on the inside,” says Linda to Mo, insinuating that it’s unlikely for someone to get punished for what was done to the dog (or, for other crimes not high on humans’ list of priorities.) And she proves to be right, as we watch him silently fight the sneers and mocking of many around him. Linda and Mo tend to the wounded dog with compassion and dignity (in fact, an air of dignity is felt through the entire film); generosities Mo also spares for a beaten up Doris when she escapes the authorities and hides away in Mo’s bare bones, mostly furniture-free apartment. Having lacked a sense of safety in their separate lives thus far, Mo and Doris bond over a shared feeling of security they find in one another and in confined spaces. One can argue that the analogy established between the protection a dog finds inside a crate’s four walls and Mo sleeping inside his closet/Doris hiding from the cops in a crate in one scene is too obvious for its own sake, but it works all the same with unassuming ease. Refreshingly (unlike many scribes who use dogs as dispensable tools towards plotting), Lew demonstrates he knows and understands dogs really well, and has humanely pondered the ways their kindly spirits heal and are superior to ours. To his further credit, The Free World doesn’t trivialize Islam in any way. Instead, it respects Mo’s daily prayer rituals and asks for our respect as an extension.

That The Free World assumes a somewhat unearned chaos in its final act, overplaying the impossible love formed between Mo and Doris is unfortunate and diminishes its thus far humble story down to something less convincing. Yet, Lew offers up enough soft pleasures in this blend of existential drama and lovers-on-the-run thriller, letting us dwell on modest hopes and dreams, worthy of his seemingly minor story with a large emotional scope.

Follow all of our Sundance 2016 coverage.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.