Runtime: 104 minutes
Directors: Mo McRae
Writers: Sarah Kelly Kaplan, Mo McRae
Cast: Cleopatra Coleman, Y’lan Noel, Justin Hartley, Shamier Anderson, Lex Scott Davis
By Tom Moore
The feature directorial debut of Mo McRae, “A Lot of Nothing” (2022), tells an interesting story about black rage and frustration that’s unfortunately foiled by its approach and lack of focus.
In the initial moments of “A Lot of Nothing”, it’s tough to exactly grasp what the film is going for with its characters as it displays a surprisingly aggressive tone. Just within the first few moments of married couple Vanessa (Cleopatra Coleman) and James (Y’lan Noel) arguing about what they should do about their neighbor Brian (Justin Hartley), a white police officer who recently shot an unarmed motorist, the film presents a very aggressive tone for these characters. The bickering power struggle they have in their relationship is almost akin to the titular couple in “Malcolm & Marie” with how they shift back and forth between being at each other’s throats to being in each other’s arms. It’s a shocking first impression that catches you off guard, but eventually the motivation behind these emotions become clear as McRae gives us a glimpse into their daily lives and the source of their anger.
As you see Vanessa and James be looked down upon and used by white co-workers for their own personal gains, you can feel this silent, but present frustration growing within them about the discrimination and lack of respect they receive every day. It’s a great display of the embodied frustration within the black community over the historic systemic racism and discrimination that seeks to keep them below white counterparts and this situation with their neighbor is the perfect point for things to boil over, especially for Vanessa.
It’s what makes a simple confrontation between Brian and Vanessa turn into Vanessa and James holding Brian captive at gunpoint leading to a stress-induced night of turmoil and tumultuous feelings being unleashed. Vanessa wanting to keep Brian captive to have a “conversation” with him is definitely a little extreme, but the way that McRae and co-writer Sarah Kelly Kaplan frame Vanessa and James’ deep seeded frustration around it makes their swift action seem less like a psychotic breakdown and more like understated frustrations boiling over. These frustrations drive the entire film and do end up leading to some strong story moments.
The entire mystery surrounding the details of Brian shooting an unarmed motorist remains interesting throughout as perspectives and “truths” are challenged as the event is fleshed out further and thoughts on the situation start to clash. The performances from Coleman and Noel are continually strong and thrilling to watch with how their panicked realization of how deep they are makes everything ten times more tense. It’s even interesting to see how the film dissects this anger through the eventual conversations Vanessa and James have with Brian and each other.
However, most of “A Lot of Nothing’s” strengths are constantly overshadowed by how much it tries to accomplish with its characters through a faulty satirical approach. While the film can have more lighthearted comedic moments that stem from some funny conflicts between James, Vanessa, and James’ brother Jamal (Shamier Anderson) and his baby mama Candy (Lex Scott Davis) as well as their ineptitude in holding someone captive, it struggles to find a tone that consistently works. The shifting tones that attempt to create a satirical depiction of these characters and their beliefs might get a laugh occasionally but makes it incredibly tough to connect with these characters and the satirical meaning of what’s happening never comes through in a discernable way.
“A Lot of Nothing” has a lot of tonal whiplash that’s tough to recover from and it infects most of the story and character conflicts the film tries to shove in. While the arrival of Jamal and Candy adds in some funny conflict, their presence doesn’t add much to the major throughline dealing with Brian. Their appearance simply adds more noise to the mix and the conflict that arises between Vanessa and Candy feels straight out of a soap opera and adds no value to the plot. Even by the end there’s just so much happening you find yourself struggling to wrap your brain around it and the film’s shock ending leaves little to be desired or satisfied with.
“A Lot of Nothing” offers some interesting story and character material dealing with black frustration that initially captures your attention and creates some strong potential, but it can’t remain coherent enough for viewers to stay connected to through its aggressive tonal shifts and overloaded story.