Sadly, even before the cinemas started closing, there was no theatrical release for this one, instead it’s gone straight to VOD and Sky Cinema. Second feature from writer and director Riley Stearns — after being attacked on the street, a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) enlists at a local dojo, led by a charismatic and mysterious sensei (Alessandro Nivola), in an effort to learn how to defend himself from future threats.
Watching the trailer for The Art of Self-Defense, you do get the sense that it’s headed somewhere a little dark from its ominous nature but it gives away nothing of what’s really in store. It would be extremely easy to underestimate this film based on its quirky, independent nature but resist that urge because it has so much more to offer, yes it is quirky but in a brilliant, unusual and distinctive way. It’s easy to immediately get a grasp of its style, it opts for the tricky but great if done well, blunt and matter of fact style of humour, making his character bland on the outside but the writing is slyly funny and witty, it sneaks in but is timed perfectly to hit the right note. It becomes a subtle parody of life, it’s not over the top but just a touch to push the comedy that much further, similar to the tone of films like The Voices or even American Ultra. However, the actual opening scene itself is much more outwardly funny, it’s clever and a great place to start, it gives you a swift kick of how sharp the writing is going to be.
If you’re looking for a lead actor and the requirements are awkward, shy, fumbling but with potential, you can’t go wrong with Jesse Eisenberg, he’s cornered the market for characters like this since Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale 15-years ago. He was a perfect choice for the role and he doesn’t disappoint, though Casey isn’t always the most likable of characters, the early scenes of his attack and sweet relationship with his best-friend / Dachshund, mean that you will want to protect him from the rest of the horrible world. This is one of two recent films that Eisenberg has starred in with Imogen Poots (the other being Vivarium), they’re indie darlings that work extremely well together, Poots is an actress that can actually do a convincing American accent, you can still tell she’s English but it’s a million times better than some. They have a great chemistry, which isn’t easy considering both their characters are very stiff, severe and struggle with connecting to other human beings, it isn’t really what you’d call a relationship, they’re barely love interests but it’s an interesting friendship to watch develop.
You can palpably feel that shyness and awkwardness coming off the screen, the film knows what it’s about and sticks to it with the perfect amount of dedication its style. It has a very brief moment of meandering towards the middle but then things take a turn and it’s utterly gripping, it goes from quirky to dark to…well that would be spoiling it but safe to say there’s a lot to discover. There’s even an edge to it that feels as though we’re headed into cult territory, if there is such a thing as a karate cult. The deeper you get into it, the more captivating it becomes and you can’t take your eyes off of it.
The Art of Self-Defense is a quirky, indie delight with a deeply dark side and more mystery than you find in most blockbusters who’ve spent a minimum of triple the budget. It’s understated and grounded but a little f*cked up and has several surprises up its sleeve to keep you absorbed. Again, it would be so easy to underestimate this film, it sadly didn’t get the release it truly deserved but make an effort to watch it and you will not be disappointed.