Sebastián Silva’s Tyrel puts an existential spin on the time-honored tradition of “a guy’s weekend” by providing a menacing edge to superficially safe situations. Tyler (Mudbound’s Jason Mitchell), wishing to escape the stress of his girlfriend’s family, joins his friend Johnny (Christopher Abbott) for a birthday celebration in a secluded Catskills cabin. He’s soon confronted by Johnny’s group of white, hyper-aggressive friends who wish to do nothing more than get drunk and goof around. Initially mistaken for “Tyrel” (hence the title), Tyler uneasily joins in with most of the shenanigans but quickly finds himself alienated from the jokes and games, especially as there’s a tinge of casual racism to the interactions. Although Silva characterizes the group as well-meaning, upper-middle-class liberals, their in-group shorthand is clearly built atop a foundation of entitlement and privilege. They speak with post-racial confidence by treating the black guy in their midst like “one of the fellas,” but are completely ignorant to how their behavior might affect someone like him. Tyrel is essentially Microaggressions: The Movie.
Anyone who has ever been the one person of color in an all-white group will likely find something to relate to in Tyrel, whether it’s the constant “we’re just kidding” reassurance or the needy insistence of participation which smacks of faux-inclusivity. Silva imbues otherwise harmless events with a dark energy just by reframing the film’s main point of view, e.g., how a rambunctious sing-along to R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” smacks of white supremacy when seen through Tyler’s eyes. However, he’s also careful to depict Tyler’s discomfort as fluid rather than a permanent state. A late appearance by Johnny’s rich friend Alan (Michael Cera, who starred in Silva’s Crystal Fairy) initially puts him at ease, because although the newcomer is genially arrogant, he’s also not afraid to actually talk to Tyler instead of around him. Social ecosystems are constantly in flux, and sometimes Tyler finds his bearings with the group, but his polite demeanor ultimately belies his loneliness. It’s telling that he’s most himself around the cabin’s dog. Epithets don’t need to be exchanged for someone to feel like they don’t belong.
Unfortunately, Silva mostly just coasts on Tyrel’s premise without actually developing it, circling one idea without saying anything with actual bite. Maybe actual plot developments would have felt contrived. But while it’s true to life that Tyler and the guys wouldn’t have some huge blow-up about racial insensitivity, a disquieting tone alone can’t provide Tyrel with deeper meaning or mask its aimlessness. Plus, Silva needlessly underlines his film’s political subtext—white liberals are just as capable of being racists as their conservative counterparts—by setting it on the weekend of Trump’s inauguration. There’s enough sociopolitical juice here for a good short film, but at feature length, Tyrel ends up spinning its wheels. Illustrating the problem with race relations in left-leaning enclaves isn’t enough. Occasionally, actual confrontation is necessary.