Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our inscrutable whims. This week: One more time, we’re accounting for our sins of omission and looking back on the best movies of 2021 we didn’t review.
White Lie opens with its ostensibly minor falsehood already in progress. Katie (Kacey Rohl), a Canadian college student claiming to be fighting cancer, is first seen shaving her head to simulate having undergone chemotherapy. Her girlfriend, Jennifer (Amber Anderson), accepts this story without suspicion. So do Katie’s professors and hundreds of well-wishers who contribute to various GoFundMe accounts that she’s set up to bilk people. This isn’t simply a portrait of a scam artist, however. At one point, we learn that Katie’s raked in about $24,000, but that sum hardly seems worth the sheer panic that consumes her at virtually all times. Whatever her original motivation for launching this charade—and that’s never revealed—it’s clear that she’s become its prisoner, unable to pull the plug for fear of the consequences and barely capable of keeping it from short-circuiting.
Twenty years ago, the French drama Time Out explored similar terrain, following a laid-off businessman who, for reasons deliberately left murky, nearly killed himself sustaining the fiction that he was still gainfully employed. Whether or not White Lie’s writer-directors Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis were directly influenced by that film, they’ve made a perfect companion piece, albeit one with a much more jittery, frantic tone. Rohl plays Katie like a shark that must remain in near-constant motion, while simultaneously suggesting the fear of being devoured should she make the slightest misstep. Her litany of tasks include bribing doctors to provide her with faked medical records, getting the payoff money from Jennifer in a form that she can actually use (without provoking suspicion), and fending off her father (Martin Donovan), who knows her too well to buy her bullshit yet again and decides that public exposure via social media is the tough-love help that she truly needs.
As in Time Out, it’s at once riveting and maddening to watch somebody self-destruct from a measured distance, privy to their every desperate move but forever uncertain about what’s going on within their fevered brain. Rohl does a superb job of embodying the habitual liar’s shortsighted fixation on just somehow making it through the current crisis, ignoring how many future difficulties the solution is likely to entail. When one such postponed nightmare finally, inevitably catches up with her, she literally stops at the doorway to certain culpability, announces “I don’t need to be here,” and walks away. Her refusal to take any of the numerous off-ramps that others laboriously construct for her throughout implies deep psychological anguish that the film respectfully declines to spell out. Jennifer clearly loves Katie to death and would likely have helped her out of this mess, had she merely confessed and begged forgiveness. Instead, Jennifer becomes the Damoclean sword that Katie dreads most.
The feature’s called Watch This, but White Lie requires a caveat: Don’t watch this if there’s only so much anxiety-by-proxy you can stomach in one sitting. The film consists entirely of its protagonist saying and doing things that make you wince, grimace, fight the impulse to shout “Bad idea!” at the screen. It’s 96 minutes of watching someone keep frantically digging a hole she’s currently standing in, even as toxic sewage water floods in to replace every shovelful of earth. Nor is there ever a cathartic moment of reckoning, or any explanation of the pathology on constant display. For better and worse—with a decided lean toward better—Thomas and Lewis commit to impassive observation, allowing Katie’s actions to speak for themselves. By the end, you won’t necessarily understand her, but you’ll have experienced one helluva hellride.