Now Playing! Independent Spirit Fuels ‘Give Me Liberty’ at the Roxie

Still from 'Give Me Liberty.' (Courtesy of Roxie Theater)

Life is hard, and then you drive. Harried Milwaukee paratransit driver Vic can’t say no to anybody, which makes him an empathetic caregiver and also perennially and perpetually late. Vic (played by newcomer Chris Galust, who sounds and looks like Casey Affleck, only likable) is the hub and the heart of Give Me Liberty, a wonderfully chaotic seriocomedy from America’s depressed heartland playing the Roxie for a week starting this Friday, Aug. 30.

Vic is behind schedule almost immediately, thanks to his Russian grandfather’s sluggishness and stubbornness. Yet he agrees to drive a group of Russian Jews to a funeral, an errand which turns into a four-lane clusterfudge of detours, mix-ups and cross-cultural bonding, the latter at a facility for differently abled people where one of Vic’s scheduled passengers is slated to sing “Rock Around the Clock” at a talent show. (The movie’s musical palette also encompasses a wealth of accordion and a poignant passage or two from John Lee Hooker.)

Still from 'Give Me Liberty.'
Still from 'Give Me Liberty.' (Courtesy of Roxie Theater)

Another regular rider, a sharply intelligent young woman with ALS named Tracy, gives Vic (and the movie) access to the dynamics of a multi-generational black family. While Vic holds the movie’s big-hearted center, Dima (Maksim Stoyanov) is its full-tilt motor. A fast-talking Russian who claims to be the deceased’s nephew, Dima charms and schemes himself, Vic and the 10-year-old Dodge van through a day crammed with incident and interaction.

A crime-free cousin of the Safdie brothers’ frenetic 2017 romp Good Time, Give Me Liberty revels in the gray streets and prosaic homes—and the vibrant people relegated to solitary, interior worlds by circumstance and/or disability—invisible to most moviemakers. Inspired by his own experience, writer-director Kirill Mikhanovsky, working with writer-producer Alice Austen and a cast of nonprofessionals, achieves something far greater, though, than a slice of gritty, messy, dogged Midwestern life.

Still from 'Give Me Liberty.'
Still from 'Give Me Liberty.' (Courtesy of Roxie Theater)

Give Me Liberty is an affirmation of foundational American ideals, particularly a responsibility to other people that supersedes one’s own needs. Vic embodies this ethos, but it’s all around him, manifested at one time or another by nearly every character in the film. The characters in this mad mosaic are striving for independence, yet they all accept that the quickest route involves cooperation, not selfishness.

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Righteously generous without being moralizing or politically correct, Give Me Liberty shines a slim ray of light on the contemporary landscape. With Vic behind the wheel, it’s enough to navigate by. And for tramps like us, that might just be the best we can hope for in 2019.

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