THE OBITUARY OF TUNDE JOHNSON – NEWFEST REVIEW

“Your life is more important than your pride.”

Review by Chris Narine

For all of its intents and purposes, there is never a moment throughout the entirety of The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, where the notion of relatability feels disingenuous, and the story being told isn’t personal. For first-time director Ali LeRoi and first-time screenwriter Stanley Kalu, Obituary has all the findings of your average student film, whether it be characters casually referencing their favorite movies or montages of character-based drama scored to hip hop music. Still, in the case here, much of these contrivances feel appropriate, as they only seem to entrance you all the more into our protagonist’s very own headspace. Through close-up shots of our protagonist Tunde or the quiet moments of him contemplating his next actions before his very own life may be taken away, this is a film that, above all else, feels relevant.

It follows high school senior Tunde Johnson (Steven Silver) as he navigates his way through the complexities of being both black and queer. Soon, he finds himself stuck within a time-loop where he ends up being horrifically murdered by police officers through some rather tragic and unfortunate circumstances. Like Ry-Russo Young’s underrated gem Before I Fall, the film uses the time-loop trope to examine our young protagonist’s own life. Slowly, we begin to learn more about his relationships with those closest to him, whether it be his mother Yomi (Tembi Locke), his father (Sami Rotibi), his best friend Marley (Nicola Peltz), or her boyfriend Soren (Spencer Neville), with whom Tunde is secretly in a relationship with.

While the story itself may occasionally appear as overwrought, it’s worth noting that Tunde’s characterization is by far the film’s greatest strength, as he’s given a plethora of depth and nuance that renders his arc into something resembling realism. In other aspects of this story, it loses steam, but Tunde himself is so compelling as a protagonist that we’re always with him throughout his rather treacherous journey. Tunde always finds care and empathy for his own complicated emotions, hoping that somehow, he’ll find the acceptance and love he so desperately yearns for and perhaps even learn to accept himself for the person he is. This compelling inner narrative is credit due to Stanley Kalu’s nuanced writing and the beautiful, captivating performance from Steven Silver.

As Tunde, what Silver does here is remarkable, turning in an incredibly passionate performance of sophisticated charisma and implosive gravitas not dissimilar to the one that Kelvin Harrison Jr. had displayed in last year’s Luce. It’s a star-making performance from him, always finding effective ways to channel Tunde’s insecurities and fragile anxieties. Silver is acting circles around a supporting cast that never seems to have as keen of a grasp on the material as well as he does.

While Locke and Ratibi are both fine as the parents, they’re not given enough depth or screen time to leave much of an impact. There also seems to be some writing issues whenever the story focuses on the love triangle formed between Tunde, Marley, and Soren, resulting in a complete misfire of a performance from Nicola Peltz, who lacks the range to elevate a caricature. While Steven Silvers and Spencer Neville certainly have chemistry, Soren’s role leaves much to be desired, which occasionally hinders Neville’s performance as well.

It’s in these moments where The Obituary of Tunde Johnson falters, as they shift focus from what is an otherwise fascinating character study to favor overtly-familiar clichés. We already know how special, flawed, and unique Tunde is because of how impactful Silver’s performance is, but having scenes of him contemplating how to get a proper handle on the love-triangle he’s been thrust into loses some of the film’s steam. It all leads to a conclusion that while admittedly is thought-provoking and provocative, it ultimately feels like a red herring within the story’s context.

Nevertheless, Obituary is still a picture that shook me. It deserves credit for its nuance, despite all the flaws and narrative issues that it may have. This film believes in and adores its protagonist and the notion of strength that he represents by continually being forced to relive his tragedy, yet never letting it stop him from having empathy. People shift in and out of our lives all the time no matter what we do, but how often do we truly know someone? How often can we sense their deep-seated worries and comprehend their pain? With this film, we’re invited to understand the pain of a kind yet complicated teenager who’s hoping to gain peace amid all his oppression. And while it may not explore everything flawlessly, it explores it with grace. 

Grade: B

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