TIFF ’19 Review: Time is the Great Equalizer in the Brilliant “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson”

The notion of a chronological loop has been deployed so many times, particularly since “Groundhog Day” made the narrative device so popular, that calling it derivative has gone from a description to an epithet. But time indeed works in mysterious ways to go by the exceptionally refreshing “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” where writer Stanley Kalu and director Ali LeRoi have come up with a dazzling drama in which the notion of a single day repeating itself for its titular gay, African-American teen (Steven Silver) becomes as much revelation for the audience as it does for him, sorting out what happened on the day that he is set to die.

“Our people don’t believe in traditional death,” Ade (Sammi Rotibi) tells his son, as the two look at his latest painting, a portrait in which many faces adorn the same head based on Ẹyọ masquerade festival in their native Lagos. The family may hail from Nigeria, but at this point they’re living out the American Dream, sitting atop the Hollywood Hills thanks to Ade’s ability to command top dollar in the art market. Still, only one step outside can bring them tumbling back to earth, particularly Tunde, who’s the lone black kid at St. Ambrose Prep where classmates call him Wesley as if to suggest he looks anything like “Blade,” and he gets pulled over by the cops for no apparent reason other than his skin color.

Yet even if you initially take umbrage at the way Tunde is treated on this formative day which always ends with a precarious encounter with the police, Kalu and LeRoi aren’t about to allow you to get comfortable with the assumptions you make based your first impression, either, gradually peeling back untold layers of his identity that not even his parents Ade and Yomi (Tembi Locke) or his best friend Marley (Nicola Peltz) think to ask about. Thankfully, the filmmakers don’t get caught up in any quantum mechanics regarding its narrative hook — though some residual effects of benzodiazepines may be involved — nor do they have Tunde try to “get it right” from one version of the day to another, making him aware that he’s living out the same experience he had just yesterday, but instead of trying to break free of the cycle by putting the onus on him to make better choices, it places that burden on those around him, including the audience, to understand what he’s going through as his encounters with those closest to him take on greater weight the more you get to know him.

While LeRoi clearly has a target demographic in mind with a look and feel that hews close to any number of slickly-stylized CW Network shows, “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson,” much like last year’s adaptation of Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” manages to cater to the young adult crowd while delivering some sophisticated and genuinely subversive twists that readily jolt one out of the complacency that comes with familiarity. (A choice, self-aware line of dialogue about Marley nabbing an audition for a Freeform pilot that she surely knows isn’t going to bring her happiness not only sums up the environment Tunde’s in, but shrewdly contributes to a sense that all of the characters have certain boxes that they’re trying to break out of in one fell swoop.) Silver rises to the considerable challenge of being a compelling presence as Tunde while being passive enough to invite the many instant conclusions that are apt to be upended by the time the film’s over and what remains consistent throughout “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” is how much life there is to be uncovered if only certain biases were put aside and by creating the space to pay attention, it does something truly beautiful in giving the full measure of a man.

“The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” will be available on VOD on February 26th.

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