Justin Simien’s smart new college satire reminds you how lazy most American comedies are. In a very different Hollywood ecosystem, Netflix is paying Adam Sandler untold millions to produce four new doofus-coms. For the same price, Simien could create a dozen movies—and probably several TV series to boot. Moreover, they’d all be topical, engaged with the Twitter-lovin’ culture of today.
Dear White People forthrightly addresses race, though its antecedents and references range further back than the unhappy headlines from Missouri and Florida. Specifically, it feels like a follow-up—though not a rebuttal—to Spike Lee’s School Daze, made a generation ago. And like Lee, though with a lighter comic touch, Simien is interested in the stereotypes that black and mixed-race kids apply to themselves. If anything, after YouTube and the Internet and smartphones and all the other mixed blessings inflicted on our youth since 1988, conformity and peer pressure have been amplified tenfold.
The movie’s title comes from the provocative campus radio show hosted by Sam (Tessa Thompson), who calls out all races for their shallow assumptions. Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is the seemingly perfect high achiever, son of a dean (Dennis Haysbert) and dating a white sorority girl. Coco (Teyonah Parris) is a savvy, sexy social-media queen, willing to play any role for the sake of fame. And new on campus is nappy-haired nerd Lionel (Tyler James Williams, from the TV show Everybody Hates Chris), trying to navigate his way among cliques and not-so-coded expectations of What It Means to Be Black. (He’s also a covert note-taker, reporting a big expose for the campus paper.)
While Sam and Troy are vying in some student-body election, and as a privileged white frat prepares for a bad-taste bacchanal, the real fun lies in the witty background chatter, grace notes, and text messages that undercut everyone’s public identity. To her white b.f. on the D.L., Sam confesses her Cosby Show nightmare—“The hair so perfect, the sweaters so big.” And though she praises Spike Lee, her secret favorite director is Ingmar Bergman. The shame! Meanwhile the Obama-smooth Troy reveals himself to be a closet toker, needing to relieve the stress of his Chosen One status. After a hook-up, Coco shows the hollowed-out sadness behind her ambition. Nobody is who they seem to be—including Lionel, whose gay editor is suddenly coming on to him, perhaps with good reason.
In his debut feature, Simien stuffs the plot with rather more stock elements than needed (a venal dean, racist frats, even a reality TV show come to mint/exploit new stars). But as with his characters, everything typical here gets comically upended. When he shows the Winchester University motto, “Nosce Te Ipsum,” Simien leaves the Latin untranslated: Know thyself. If only it were so easy. Opens Fri., Oct. 24 at Sundance Cinemas and other theaters. Rated R. 108 minutes.