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Self Reliance movie review & film summary (2024)

Instead, Tommy has to turn to strangers to satisfy this now literally existential need for company, which is where “Self Reliance” grasps at its most interesting ideas about human connection and the need to shake ourselves from the familiar. First, he hires a bum off the street he names “James” (“I Think You Should Leave” titan Biff Wiff, all toothless, beardy grin and affable smile) to shadow him. The two hit it off, and their unexpected friendship is easily the film’s most appealing element. (Shades of Nick Miller’s abiding friendship with Tran in “New Girl” abound.) Then, a Craigslist ad seeking out other potential contestants leads him to the effervescent Maddy (Anna Kendrick), a fellow loner seeking a companion to ride out the rest of the competition.

At its essence, “Self Reliance” feels like an allegory for the way many of us had to shake off the cobwebs of social interaction after two years of holing up in our houses. These moments feel didactic but not overplayed, mostly coming through in this middle act when Maddy uses her natural perkiness to push Tommy out of his comfort zone. It’s a little too “Garden State” in places, but Johnson smartly puts a grim enough layer on their dynamic to avoid turning the whole thing into a treacly rom-com. 

The problems come when Johnson gets too lost in the logistics of the game itself, clearly having too many ideas about what the contest could actually be or what effect it could have on Tommy, but never fully committing to any of them. Is it a real life-or-death game? If so, there aren’t enough moments of discrete danger, even as Johnson recognizes how hilarious it is to watch him being chased, as if he were starring in “After Hours.” Is it, as another fellow contestant who finds Tommy and Maddy (GaTa) implies, a comedy where people laugh at his expense? Johnson never really decides whether he wants to borrow more from “The Most Dangerous Game” or “The Truman Show,” leaving the resolution in a messy place between satisfyingly grim or sunny. 

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