It's hard to believe Give Me Liberty star Chris Galust is a newcomer. As van driver Vic, Galust's nuanced performance is so natural and layered, he projects the confidence of a much more seasoned vet. And while we assume (and hope) he'll go on to do great things, his work in the newest film from writer/director Kirill Mikhanovsky (credited here as Mikhanovsky) is damn near perfect.
Vic is one of those medical transport drivers in Milwaukee. It's the kind of job that finds him helping the elderly make it to appointments or the disabled get around the city to compete in talent shows, visit doctors and so forth. But whereas Vic seems a good enough sort, he's constantly running behind and finding his riders running roughshod over his good naturedness. Enter a wide array of kooky characters—the loudmouthed diabetic and the wheelchair-bound social worker, the gaggle of Russian immigrants trying to get to their friend's funeral who transform Vic's van into a music number on wheels.
Mikhanovsky based the film on his own experiences in a similar job circa the early '90s, when his family first came to America from Russia. Vic's various fares are based on his real-life passengers, and while the high points are almost invariably in Vic's responses to late riders, car wrecks, needy hangers-on and his own grandfather nearly burning down his apartment building with a cooking mishap, it's Vic himself who makes Give Me Liberty special. It's anyone's guess how much of himself Mikhanovsky put into the character, but Galust's seamless transition between overwhelmed hard-ass, heart-of-gold caretaker and wide-eyed young person make his performance one of the best this year.
Give Me Liberty does falter in its protracted yet shallow jabs at social commentary, attempting to show multiple sides of racial issues but not meaningfully touching on them. And there's an ill-advised switch to black and white footage toward the end that feels more jarring than artistic. They're small flaws (and they honestly might work for some) in an otherwise simple but powerful indie cast by very funny side characters and led by an actor we'll undoubtedly see more of soon
+Quietly funny; Galust; moving
-Too long; a couple strange artistic choices
Give Me Liberty
Directed by Mikhanovsky
Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 110 min.