Life is hard. No matter how you look at it, life is hard. Have you ever wanted to throw in the towel and run away from it all? No? Just me? In Maxwell McCabe-Lokos’ feature film debut STANLEYVILLE, a no-exit dark satire about society and the sacrifices needed to find oneself.
In STANLEYVILLE, we meet Maria Barbizan (Susanne Wuest), a woman who is over her job, her marriage, her life. After throwing out her purse and identification, she takes a seat on a bench only to be approached by a strange man offering her the chance to compete in a game with a prize of a brand-new habanero-orange compact SUV. Having nothing to lose, she takes him up on his offer with 4 other contestants in a game that quickly turns from fun to a game of life and death.
Bringing to life the character of Maria is actor Susanne Wuest. Compared to all the other characters we meet, she’s the one you really find yourself rooting for. Wuest breathes life into Maria with a personality that is sweet and unassuming but there is a tinge of darkness behind the eyes. There are moments that feel frustrating due to the decisions that Maria makes, but regardless of what we may want for the character, Maria seems at peace with each and every decision she makes in the game. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Cara Ricketts (“Felicie Arkady”), Christian Serritiello (“Andrew Frisbee, Jr.”), George Tchortov (“Bofill Pancreas”), Adam Brown (“Manny Jumpcannon”), and Julian Richings (“Homunculus”). All the actors play their characters to a T – invoking cockiness and cunningness as each of them firmly believes they will be the winner of this competition. I would have liked to have seen more depth to these characters and a better understanding of how they found themselves in their current mindset/position. It would have added more context to their participation but also would have helped in raising the stakes more.
The film is rather impressive in terms of its setup. The majority of the movie takes place in one room with a few smaller rooms that are offshoots of the main space. That being said, using more decor to bring a small semblance of life to the space for it to not feel so vast and empty might have been nice. Nonetheless, what was used was effective in showcasing the division taking place between Maria and the other five contestants. Maria is often seen in the corner of the room with scraps and cardboard while the rest of the contestants are boasting their accomplishments and creating spaces filled with material objects.
The film mainly focuses on Maria as she finds herself through this experience. Leaving everything behind and, in a way, starting anew. Sure, a new car is a wonderful thing to receive, but that’s not why Maria is here. She’s trying to find her own inner peace, even if that comes at a cost. There are also themes of entitlement and material possessions. We see that in some of the characters, especially Christian Serritiello’s character, Andrew Frisbee Jr., who doesn’t even need to be part of this competition. However, no amount of money can stop death when it’s your time to go.
STANLEYVILLE is an odd little film, but it works. Outside of some of the heavier films, the film has a light-hearted and humorous exaggeration to it, even when people are dying. Julian Richings is fantastic per usual, playing an eccentric, dead-panned “host” of sorts. As with any film he’s in, I would have loved more scenes that included his performance. My only gripe with the film was that I wanted more from the ending. I’m typically all for vague endings and I get where the film was going, but I just needed a little bit more to feel satisfied with the conclusion. For some viewers, they may find the ending as frustrating as I did, but I’m assuming director Maxwell McCabe-Lokos left it like that for viewers to come to their own conclusion.
STANLEYVILLE isn’t going to be for everyone but the ones who connect with it will see it for what it’s worth. Even though I think the film needed a bit more in terms of production design and further fleshing out of the characters and stories, McCabe-Lokos still has a film that’s thought-provoking, fun, and darkly humorous. It’s a film that has sat with me since I saw it over a month ago and makes me excited to see what McCabe-Lokos does next.
STANLEYVILLE had its World Premiere at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.