What would happen if you stripped the gore from Squid Game and added the charm of New Girl mixed with the eeriness of The Truman Show? You’d get something like Jake Johnson’s quiet and quirky directorial debut Self-Reliance. The understated film, which premiered at SXSW, follows a lonely, cantankerous man who is presented with the opportunity to participate in a reality television show for the dark web.
Thomas (Johnson) lives an insular life, defined by his mundane routines. He wakes up at 7 a.m. to the blaring horn sound of his phone alarm and spins on a home stationary bike before heading to his office, where he spends hours hunched over a computer. He used to be in a relationship — but that ended a few years ago. Judging from the framed photograph of Thomas and his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Morales) prominently positioned on his bedside table, Thomas isn’t over it.
The Bottom Line
Should have been weirder and wilder.
This stasis is what, in part, propels Thomas to join a dark web reality show he’s never heard of. The invitation and its terms and conditions are explained by Andy Samberg (playing himself). When Thomas — not even waiting for all the information — enthusiastically agrees, Samberg looks at him incredulously. Does he really have nothing better to do than submit to a life-threatening game where strangers try to murder him for 30 days?
He does not, and he’s not alone. The contemporary reality television landscape is riddled with people humiliating themselves or facing extreme situations. Dating shows like Love Island and The Bachelor sequester people on islands and in mansions to force romance. Survivor, Alone or The Challenge test individual capacities for perseverance with the natural world and other humans. The evidence that people will do wild things for cash prizes, glory or out of sheer boredom is all around us.
Self Reliance understands this intrinsically, so it’s disappointing that the film doesn’t lean all the way into its absurd premise. With its winking jokes and nudging asides, the film insists on its self-awareness. This is most apparent when watching Thomas interact with his family, a clan of nonbelievers. When he tells them about the show, they tease him. When he tells them that he has to be around someone all the time to avoid death, they laugh him off. Their responses — the disbelief, the mocking, the exasperation — are proxies for an anticipated audience reaction, an acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of it all.
But it’s not all that ridiculous when you think about it. Genuine connection has always been scarce, but during the height of the pandemic in 2020 it became even more so. Johnson wrote the screenplay for Self Reliance during this scary, unpredictable and lonely period. The lessons from isolation undergird the film’s emotional core. Being on the show (the name of which I won’t reveal) helps Thomas cope with his breakup, encourages him to get out in the world and reinvigorates and strengthens his capacity to care about other people. His friendship with James (Biff Wiff), a homeless man he randomly conscripts, starts off in dubious territory only to bloom into something authentic.
The same can’t be said about his relationship to Maddy (Anna Kendrick), a woman he learns is also on the reality show. That element destabilizes the film’s tone — which, up until then, has been laced with irony. Maddy’s motivations are underwritten, so her presence feels doubly frustrating as it shifts the vibes toward the softer and more sentimental without providing much clarity.
Self Reliance fares better when it plays up its fictional reality TV show. Johnson flexes his familiarity with the landscape and its mechanics. Samberg’s brief appearance as a messenger captures the vessel-like vacuousness of reality TV hosts. The production assistants, whom Thomas refers to as ninjas for the way they slink in and out of his life, appear periodically for comic relief and to provide cryptic clues. They are reminders of the not-so-invisible producer hand of reality TV. With the help of DP Adam Sliver, Johnson also subtly distinguishes the film’s perspectives, shifting between Thomas’ point of view and ours as viewers of this obscure show.
All of this makes you wish Self Reliance took more liberties with its premise and just got weirder. Part of the fun of reality television is its uncanniness. The situations are manufactured, but their stakes feel real to the participants and viewers. There are a few moments in Self Reliance when it’s clear that Thomas is in a life-threatening situation, but for most of the film it’s all too easy to forget.
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Production company: MRC Films
Cast: Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Andy Samberg, Natalie Morales, Christopher Lloyd, Wayne Brady, GaTa, Emily Hampshire, Mary Holland, Boban Marjanović
Director-screenwriter: Jake Johnson
Producers: Jake Johnson, Ali Bell, Joe Hardesty
Executive producers: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
Cinematographer: Adam Silver
Production designer: Grace Alie
Costume designer: Heather Allison
Editor: Ryan Brown
Music: Dan Romer
Casting director: Wendy O’Brien
1 hour 29 minutes