US: Featured

This is a uniquely difficult film to review, I confess. I want to tell you everything that happens in US, so I can parse through each moment and share every idea and theory that came to me while I watched. However, in order to be spoiler-free — something I feel is especially important in the case of this movie — I will resist that temptation.

As a result, this review might feel a little thinner and a little less in-depth than I typically deliver. I apologize in advance and promise you I will circle around to do a commentary on the film sometime in the future that explores its events and themes in more explicit and exhaustive detail. However, until then, I do hope this will suffice.

Lupita Nyong’o, Evan Alex, and Shahadi Wright Joseph struggle to get comfortable in their own home in US. Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The Idea Behind US

The Wilson family has packed up their car and gone on vacation. Gabe, the dad, (Winston Duke) cannot contain his excitement. He has a used boat he just bought, a plethora of dad jokes, and he cannot wait to hit the beach. The rest of the family is less than enthusiastic. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is not much of a beach fan since childhood, oldest child Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) just wants to be on her phone and not discussing running for track at all, and youngest child Jason (Evan Alex) is stuck on a magic trick he just cannot get to work.

Then there is Gabe’s friend/figure of competition Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and his family. Josh and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) have the kind of constant bickering relationship that will probably make you recall at least one set of your grandparents. And when Kitty is not busy with that, she is decrying the “loss” of her youth and her chance at movie stardom. Their twins, meanwhile, are the kind of teenagers who won’t stop doing cartwheels even when they crush a child’s sand castle by tumbling right on top of it.

After a day with the Tylers, the Wilsons return home. However, they soon learn someone else has decided to pay them a visit. Another family of four, one that feels very familiar and yet wholly alien.

And that is all you get to know in advance.

Lupita Nyong’o wins every staring contest. Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Writing US

Jordan Peele’s screenplay is a marvel. There is not an ounce of fat on this bone. No word, no set piece, no piece of media on screen that does not have a purpose in being there. Honestly, even what I assumed to be random atmosphere establishing set dressing became important parts of the story. It is just that thoughtful and meticulous. His concern lies with America’s more recent sins, and the script unflinchingly drags them into the light.

The Wilson family feels like a real functional family with all the bright spots and annoyances that come with that. No one is perfect, no one is monstrous, no one is a cartoon idiot like you often find when films attempt to portray the family dynamic.

The Tyler family, on the other hand, feels like the kind of family that would be infuriating to spend time with. However, they feel that way in a realistic manner, right down to the bond between Gabe and Josh. It makes no sense that Gabe would tolerate Josh after all these years, but you can tell he remains affectionate towards his friend while trying to match the richer man’s “toys.”

Peele, not surprisingly, can write himself a joke. Once again, though, he is writing jokes that work in both context and with who is saying them. As a result, US is not exactly riotously funny, but each attempt at humor lands with that just right feeling. It is, for lack of a better way to put it, the kind of jokes we all use every day. The wit of average people with generally good senses of humor.

Casting the Leads of US

Nyong’o’s performance here is the traffic stopper. I do not want to say much more beyond that — again, spoilers. I’ll just say her acting is strong in other films, but she finds a whole new gear here.

Winston Duke, so charismatic and powerful in BLACK PANTHER, wonderfully dorks himself up for Gabe. He feels every inch a dad without collapsing into cliché.

Joseph is a relative newcomer — this is her first feature film — but she has the poise in the role of someone with more experience under her belt. She has two more films in the pipeline for the next year or so, and I am very excited to see what she does with that.

Alex has quite a few credits to his name, but they all appear to be predominantly shorts and TV guest spots. Nonetheless, he impressed me as well. There are vague allusions to his issues with focus and inappropriateness that may simply be perfectly age appropriate or the sign of a possible diagnosis like ADHD or something on the high functioning spectrum. As an actor, he brings across the sense that either could be true as well. He nicely embodies a kid in transition who might just be an awkward juncture in his life or might be adapting to something more permanent.

US: Jason and Pluto
Evan Alex faces himself in a scene from US. Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Casting The Rest of the Callsheet

Heidecker and Moss are conceived of as clichés — or more accurately and charitably — archetypes. However, they pitch their performances very well for what is to come. If they went too far in either direction towards or away from their archetypes, the turn that involves them in the second act would not work nearly as well. Heidecker, in particular, I found a good surprise. He’s been bouncing around in dramatic roles for a bit now, but this is the first time I felt he fully connected with the material.

Developing the Sound of US

Michael Abels, the film score composer for GET OUT as well as providing additional music cues for DETROIT, does an excellent job. The bit of score used in both trailers is used in the film as well and is just as effective if not more so. The minimalist but the attention-demanding sound of it got my blood pumping the moment it kicked in.

On the song front, the movie also makes strong choices. Beside “Five On It” which is featured in the trailer, we get treated to the Beach Boys, Janelle Monae, NWA, and Minnie Riperton tracks. The Beach Boys and NWA songs, in particular, are used to great effect.

US: Adelaide
Lupita Nyong’o is still standing in a scene from US. Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Directing US

Peele never once fails to be honest with the audience. He lets you see the cards well in advance. He does not bother with jump scares or fake outs. The film traffics in no gore splattered moments of fake terror. Instead, he methodically ratchets up the tension tighter and tighter. He lets you see the boogiemen, lets your brain register them, and still makes them scary. This is not a movie about the things that jump out at you from the dark. It’s about the figures that confidently stride into your life and wreak havok in plain sight.

As I noted above, the script is a beautifully efficient thing and that carries over into the directing. What Peele elects to show you and when allows him to surprise while still playing straight with the audience. Once the “rules” are made clear by a thoroughly creepy bit of exposition, you can start to predict what comes next. But instead of making the film feel predictable or stale, it renders it a legitimate mystery. You get the feeling you can honestly unravel what is going on alongside the characters. And, as the characters do too, you realize knowing what is happening and doing something about it are very, very different things.

US: Shadows
The Shadows claim their space in US. Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

That’s a Wrap!

I do not want to overstate things, but, eh, screw it. US is incredible. I adored it. If the theatre had offered to screen it again immediately after the credits finished, I gladly would have said yes. I have seen some very good movies already this year. This one though? I went into the world changed after seeing, which is more than I can say for the other films I’ve seen recently.

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