Stanleyville‘s Surreal Contest Could Stand a Few Rules

Movies Reviews Maxwell McCabe-Lokos
Stanleyville‘s Surreal Contest Could Stand a Few Rules

Writer/director Maxwell McCabe-Lokos makes a conscious choice to frame Stanleyville like he’s conceptualizing on the fly. Imagine French absurdist Quentin Dupieux (Rubber, Deerskin) bringing his signature oddness to one of what I’m sure will be many modern Squid Game riffs. McCabe-Lokos and co-writer Rob Benvie blend danger-dark humor with the phenomenon of American mini-mall sweepstakes, but complicate their grand prize chase with an existential overtone that favors too much ambiguity over characters and viewers. There’s a giddiness to the proceedings that punch above the single-location, minimalist gameplay on an empty-rec-room budget, yet the film’s finale exits as gracefully as a Bond villain jumping out a window mid-monologue before their master plan is fully revealed.

A backpack-wearing man called “Homunculus” (Julian Richings) approaches housewife and mother Maria (Susanne Wuest) while she sits alone, ready to abandon her empty existence. He tells her she’s been selected for a mystery contest where she can win not only a habanero-colored SUV, but complete transcendence. Maria is directed towards a pavilion with four other players who are told there will be eight rounds with a winner per activity, then an overall winner. Rules are straightforward, the tasks random and the purpose always in question.

Stanleyville confronts humanity’s weaknesses when placed into a competitive scenario. Felicie Arkady (Cara Ricketts) cares only about the vehicular reward that awaits should she emerge victorious. Andrew Frisbee, Jr. (Christian Serritiello) allows his father’s unforgettable disappointment to drive his trauma-forced aggression harder and faster. As Homunculus announces each rousing opportunity for more points—through vague instructions that seem pulled out of thin air—the tension and desire to win at all costs increases across the group. Manny Jumpcannon (Adam Brown) becomes more theatrically frenzied, or Bofill Pancreas (George Tchortov) chugs more of his pyramid-scheme nutrition supplement drink to gain that powdery edge. The later the rounds, the more “threatening” the asks and the more we’re reminded that humankind is a cutthroat, vile species motivated by selfish thoughts—which is fine enough a watch, but that’s not where the screenplay stops.

You might have already gathered the quirkiness of Stanleyville by names like “Jumpcannon” or hammered-on details like an SUV’s pepper-colored exterior. That offbeat characterization bleeds into the central narrative as brought upon by Maria, who so desperately views Homunculus’ bizarre challenges as a path to rejuvenation. Manny might frustratingly question how a box of random, unclassifiable-by-rationale objects can be sequentially lined—the same as McCabe-Lokos’ audiences—while Maria channels significance from a higher power’s vision. There’s this wonderment about Maria’s refusal to see tasks as mundane achievements, but it never becomes the commentary on existential meaninglessness the film so hopes. As contestants fight psychological abuse at the hands of Homunculus, surrealism trumps attempts at higher-power cultism, social experimentation or whatever else McCabe-Lokos tries to vibe with using faint subtext.

The casting at least anchors Stanleyville in its obscurity, given how Richings—indie horror’s ominous everyman—nondescriptly stammers and guides his players to finish lines. He’s adept at ensuring no one guesses what might happen next; Maria’s crew are asked to do everything from composing a worldwide musical anthem to disfiguring someone’s body, often without paced escalation. Everything just…happens. McCabe-Lokos fails to execute chaotically contained madness like Everything Everywhere All At Once, which artfully commands its zaniness. Instead, Stanleyville lacks discipline as disembodied voices haunt Maria over conch shell communication devices, surging forward with only shrugs and nervous laughter as explanations.

Stanleyville feels like a puzzle missing pieces. McCabe-Lokos tells a stronger visual and performance-based story than what’s written in the screenplay—like if Wes Anderson accidentally stumbled into a Saw directing gig—which still doesn’t paint a completely representative picture. Stanleyville is best as its hopeful champions foam at the mouth over their desire to win, and worst at explaining why these hopefuls are so invested in an otherwise asinine display of balloon-popping or candle-snuffing. An under 90-minute runtime does the film a massive favor, but Stanleyville is still an overextended last-person-standing confrontation of life’s ultimate acceptance that fulfillment may not ever be achievable.

Director: Maxwell McCabe-Lokos
Writer: Rob Benvie, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos
Starring: Susanne Wuest, Cara Ricketts, Christian Serritiello, George Tchortov, Adam Brown, Julian Richings
Release Date: April 22, 2022

Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.

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