Bittersweet bite of the Big Apple
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, May 4, 2012
It might not be obvious from the title, but "Restless City" possesses a poetic, contemplative sensibility as attuned to the vagrant beauty of polyglot urban life as to its chaotic unpredictability.
In this narratively unsteady but visually rhapsodic debut film - by the Nigeria-born fashion photographer Andrew Dosunmu - New York is once again portrayed as the place where dreams come true, but the filmmaker infuses that familiar narrative with the uncertainty of displacement and the verve of fusion and discovery.
Sy Alassane plays Djbril, a 21-year-old immigrant from Senegal who scratches a living from selling bootleg CDs on Canal Street and longs to make it big as a pop star. When he meets a beautiful prostitute named Trini (Sky Grey), the shadow world they both inhabit takes on far more dangerous implications.
Djbril and Trini's love story plays out with familiar, even hackneyed tropes, from the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold to "Restless City's" operatically tragic climax. What sets the film apart is Dosunmu's bold sense of design, both visual and aural. Moments after Djbril explains in a voice-over that music is his life, the director plunges his film into silence, with the stray sounds of traffic replacing what most filmmakers would have filled with emotion-tugging musical cues.
That mix of abstraction and realism continues throughout Djbril's quietly compelling journey through the hair salons, nightclubs, immigrant hotels and ad hoc marketplaces that make up the material contours of the African diaspora. (Alassane's impassive, virtually wordless portrayal of Djbril introduces a new brand of modern hero: With his Vespa scooter, long leather jacket, aviator shades and big red headphones, he's the avatar of a new kind of cool, cosmopolitan-retro style.)
The fact that "Restless City" is drenched in lush textures and color - reds, ochres and teal dominate a richly textured palette - isn't surprising given Dosunmu's background in photography and music video. But he's aided considerably by the sensitive cinematography of Bradford Young, the Howard University graduate whose similarly accomplished work on "Pariah" gave that film its distinctive look. Young films much of the action in "Restless City" obliquely, in reflection or refracted through glass, or in hazy, out-of-focus shots. The look of faded film stock harks back to such edgy 1970s urbanist classics as "Midnight Cowboy" and "Klute."
Between them, Dosunmu and Young create a visual language that's simultaneously impressionistic and firmly grounded in reality - the perfect balance for a haunting, deeply atmospheric film that exists in a similar nether-region between past and present, fable and stark cautionary tale.
"Restless City" infuses everyday grimness and grit with what seems to be so sorely lacking in movies nowadays: beauty.
Contains some drug use and brief sexuality. In English and some French with English subtitles.