SXSW: Self-Reliance Not All It Could Be

The story of a man in a mess in more ways than one dropped film on day two of the festival. Written, produced, directed by, and starring Jake Johnson, Self Reliance screened at SXSW in a packed Paramount Theatre. Johnson’s effort is gallant and decently paced, but his final act falters with disjointed events and missing pieces.

Again, the Paramount was packed – a raucous crowd looking for entertainment. Johnson was in the house along with members of the cast for pre-movie intros and a Q&A after. Johnson plays Tommy, a man with issues, to be sure. Andy Samberg (as himself) sets him up to participate in a life-or-death game with a million-dollar prize. The goal is to survive, and the key is never being alone. When Tommy tells his family, they laugh him out of the house; he enlists a homeless man to follow him around. Soon Tommy seeks out a fellow game participant and finds Maddy (Anna Kendrick), who agrees to “survive” with him. All they have to do is survive 30 days without dying. Tommy, who wasn’t exactly living before, learns the importance of life and the need to enjoy the company of others.

Self-reliance is both exciting and frustrating. Johnson fills his story and premise with holes and unfinished business. There are times when Tommy is in the same house with someone but is still notably targeted, and others when he leaves (albeit only a few yards) his “buffers” and wanders alone, and he doesn’t die. The final act is disjointed, and elements of the story and some characters aren’t adequately fleshed out, particularly Tommy’s relationship with Maddy.

Johnson’s goal appears to be that we all need others in our lives to actually LIVE. Still reeling from a breakup two years earlier, Tommy muddles through life, content to be alone and miserable, until the dark-web game. Johnson’s script has great potential, but the third act is messy and fragmented, forcing the audience to interpret the difference between reality and fantasy. Throughout the film, the tone shifts between comedy and suspense, making for some entertaining moments, but as noted, the ending fails to satisfy completely.

It is always a good time to see the stars live and listen to them talk about their experiences. Their interaction on stage reflected the obvious chemistry on screen. I did not get to ask Johnson, no stranger to SXSW, about his soundtrack choices. His song choices were as disjointed as his final act. Still, Self-Reliance is a decent ride, and it speaks to issues of solitude versus actually living a full life. I am placing three stars up top. It is worth at least a steaming look.

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