Movies

‘Give Me Liberty’ Is All Milwaukee

Milwaukee director’s acclaimed film is unique: funny, sad and filled with humanity.

By - Aug 26th, 2019 12:42 pm
Get a daily rundown of the top stories on Urban Milwaukee
Lauren Spencer, Steve Wolski as a disabled passenger and Chris Galust as the driver in “Give Me Liberty.” Photo from Music Box Films.

Lauren Spencer, Steve Wolski as a disabled passenger and Chris Galust as the driver in “Give Me Liberty.” Photo from Music Box Films.

There is a Milwaukee parochial appeal to Give Me Liberty – but don’t dismiss the film because of that. It’s like the hometown announcers for the Milwaukee Brewers – they may be good, but don’t reflect why the team has national appeal and importance.

Liberty – being shown all week by the Milwaukee Film Festival for the public at its stunning home, the Oriental Theater – has made international waves as well as being filmed entirely here. Highways and streets from the East Side to the inner city are pungent with familiarity and a heady mix of crazy Russians crowded together and equally crowded black families, their homes and apartments filled with a sense of caring but also broken glass, age and smoke.

Side by reluctant side, spouting all the bias and suspicions of their heritage, tolerating the halfwit Russian grandfather and the black alcoholic mother, they reveal similar stories and similar family dynamics of bossy matriarchs, disabled patients and vocally abrasive social victims – a flotsam and jetsam that film maker Kirill Mikhanovsky, himself a Russian émigré who drove a medical transport van, makes painfully haunting and lovable without disguising a single wart.

The film has moments of madcap comedy as Vic, the energetic young medical transport driver who can never say no, but whose manner speaks volumes, loads the disabled, the spastic, the complaining and a forlorn Russian funeral party together in a high-speed dash through a Milwaukee race riot.

Among the results: a raucous songfest at the wrong burial site and a musical concert at a disabled center, which opens with an Elvis song from an ancient baritone while the female passenger who loves Elvis winds up doing Bill Haley and the Comets. Springsteen would love the passion, if not the rendering, of his “Born in the U.S.A.”

You may notice how these cultures, in a milieu where fortunes are hidden in mattresses and everyone drinks cheap liquor, are also a social commentary, forcing us to see the humanity and artistry in the sort of faces the middle class normally shudders to rub shoulders with. Mikhanovksy, adopting a documentary fast-cut style for his wild rides and some extended Fellini-like encounters among diverse types, never has to make a political comment beyond the act of showing people.

It is both honest and sardonic, like the “Give Me Liberty” title. It picks the first half of a famous Patrick Henry quote from the Revolutionary War: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me give me liberty or give me death.” It is a hard reminder of the resilient American dream and our commitment to embrace people at the height or bottom of their lives.

Strong and usually welcome portraits are anchored by Lauren (Lolo) Spencer, suffering in real-life and on film from ALS, and by Chris Galust as the picked-upon Good Samaritan of a medical van driver.  Several real life victims of disease and birth defects are used for deep impact as the film maker drops shards of their behavior – and their skills — into our psyche.

It is, frankly, hard to accuse the non-actors he has found of overacting. But one does – Max Stolanov as Dimi, an often lovable Russian bear whose constant chatter and burly over-amorous behavior drive much of the plot and the humor. It sometimes seemed that his best moments were too attractive for the director to ever quit him on less effective side journeys.

The film falls into the dilemma of spending too much time with its creations — winding up with the social realism of Maxim Gorky rather than the Chekhovian insights into the human condition that its story intends. The good moments prompt surprise laughter – comedy in the middle of tragic circumstances, giddy love of a good chase in the middle of disastrous careening.

A blurring black-and-white nightmare of the riot and of police indifference goes on too long and with little point back into the structure of the film. The audience must bring a balanced approach to appreciate the limitations of this blend of comedy and despair, settling for the unexpected moments of wonder within a film that doesn’t know when it’s over.

Film plays Aug. 26-29 (call 414-276-5140 for Oriental details). It is expected to enjoy wider release August 30 after this special premiere at the Oriental.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.

3 thoughts on “Movies: ‘Give Me Liberty’ Is All Milwaukee”

  1. frank a schneiger says:

    Go see Give Me Liberty, possibly the greatest motion picture of all time. The Godfather, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, all boring losers compared to Give Me Liberty. And, Glen Close, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts, all amateurs and hacks compared to Lauren Spencer and Chris Galust. (Max Stolanov does overact a bit from time to time, well, actually, all of the time). And, from a local Milwaukee perspective, the opening scenes makes it clear that Farwell Avenue has earned its reputation as the boulevard of broken dreams. This is one of those rare films that you see and say, what in the hell am I doing here?, while you are simultaneously planning to go back to see it again. The New York City audience gave it a standing ovation at the end, all 15 of us there in the IFC film center.

  2. Thomas Mott says:

    One has to be impressed by the positive reviews from here, there, and everywhere. And by the endorsement of the likes of the NYTimes, Cannes, Sundance, et al. Those are all very nice and should produce a large measure of local pride..

    But, honestly, folks, you have to see it to really appreciate it. Summaries and descriptions just are not enough; that’s for the same reason that a recipe and review of a brandy manhattan can’t have the same effect as sitting down at the bar or in your family room — and drinking it. All of it. And then enjoying the feeling it produces.

  3. frank a schneiger says:

    People: listen to and obey Thomas Mott. He is right.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us