Review: The Obituary of Tunde Johnson

Directed by Ali LeRoi and written by Stanley Kalu, a wealthy, Nigerian-American teen is pulled over by police, shot to death and immediately awakens, reliving the same day over and over, trapped in a terrifying time loop – forced to confront difficult truths about his life and himself. Starring: Steven Silver, Spencer Neville, Nicola Peltz, David James Elliott, Joey Pollari, Alessandra Rosaldo, Sammi Rotibi and Tembi Locke.

It seems like we just get one time loop film after another these days so the key to making it work is having a fresh angle, so going for both a coming out story and a comment on racial profiling certainly keeps things interesting. Kalu’s writing uses that loop to slowly reveal the larger picture, it isn’t simply slightly different variations of the same few hours, each day shows a different side of Tunde’s (Silver) life and those around him. It keeps a great pace to it and prevents it falling into the typical repetitive nature of these types of stories. One thing that is repeated is how often it breaks your heart, seeing the ease with which Tunde is treated with such severe prejudice that results in him being killed by the police every single time is almost hard to watch.

The inherent problem it encounters is that trying to tackle both race and coming out stories in a time loop structure is too much for one film because it can’t do justice to both of those issues. It does its best to balance them out and they do each have a significant part to play but the impact is lessened by being split. The coming out aspect is much more as you’d expect, it features all the usual anxieties, secrets and apprehension, it does still feel new but there’s not too much ground being covered that hasn’t been before in film.

LeRoi’s direction fits perfectly with the tone of the story, it adds this slightly dark almost thriller edge but remains youthful and energetic. There’s a smoothly flowing energy to it despite its back-and-forth nature. You can see how LeRoi tried to keep things creative, there’s a lot of unusual angles and techniques used to add a more individual style, there may be choices that don’t work for everyone but they do fit into the atmosphere that it creates. Other than its split nature, the only other issue is how the filmmakers chose to resolve the story, it feels too obvious and after seeing Tunde’s day restarted so many times, it’s disappointing to not receive a more satisfying conclusion.

In his first feature role, Steven Silver took on a huge challenge, this role is far more emotional than you’d expect, requiring him to traverse down roads of sexuality, race, addiction, sex, friendship and anxiety. Silver really gives it his all, there’s both a strength and vulnerability to Tunde, he’s a complex character and Silver captures that extremely well. Alongside him Spencer Neville does a great job of tapping into the typical closeted teen, trying to force himself to be something he’s not for fear of what other people will think. Nicola Peltz rounds out their trio, she adds a classic touch of teen drama, it’s not a hugely original role but she brings a big personality and confidence to it before slowly bringing out the more sensitive, self-conscious side to her character.

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a fantastic concept to open up a conversation about race and sexuality with a younger generation. It has a youthful energy with a dark edge that keeps pushing forward its heart-breaking story. It sadly can’t do justice to both elements of its plot, there isn’t the time or space to fully explore two such serious issues but it does manage to balance them well in spite of that. Silver gives a superb performance, watching Tunde become more broken and vulnerable as time goes on is genuinely moving.

Verdict: ✯✯✯½

Reviewed as part of BFI Flare – Available to watch until 28th March

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