Directed by Ali LeRoi (“Everybody Hates Chris,” “Are We There Yet?”) and written by Stanley Kalu in his feature writing debut, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson (2019) follows Tunde Johnson (played by Steven Silver) a wealthy, Nigerian-American teen, who is pulled over by police, shot to death, and immediately awakens – reliving the same day over and over, trapped in a terrifying time loop that forces him to confront difficult truths about his life and himself. The film sees Tunde tackle a number of issues prevalent in American society such as racism, police brutality, and LGBTQ acceptance, while also dealing with his own mental health, addiction issues, as well as his own acceptance.
This film features absolutely phenomenal performances all around, especially from Steven Silver (“13 Reasons Why”). The fact that this is his feature-film acting debut is remarkable. He was such a captivating protagonist (both in the writing and performance). I believed every single emotional beat and every single decision that Tunde made. Silver was able to enrich this already extremely well developed character through his delivery, emotional vulnerability, and charisma. The other two standout performances were Spencer Neville (“Ozark,” “American Horror Story”) as Soren O’Connor, Tunde’s secret boyfriend. Like Silver, Neville managed to enrich this already well developed character with his incredible emotional range. The cherry on top was the excellent on screen chemistry between these two actors. The other standout performance was from Nicola Peltz (Transformers: Age of Extinction, Holidate) as Marley Meyers. Like the other two, she brought a great sense of authenticity and emotional vulnerability to this character, however, unlike the other two leads, her dialogue wasn’t always quite there, which I think makes her more than believable delivery ever more impressive.
This film tackles a lot of heavy subject matter. Racially motivated police brutality, LGBT struggles, drug usage, mental health, and what it means to be black and/or an immigrant in America. There’s a lot going on. And on top of that, our main character is stuck in a time loop after he is shot and killed, where he repeats the day over and over to try to escape his death. There’s a lot of contemporary themes and ideas that this film brings to light to the point where I think it might have been a tiny bit overly ambitious. The stuff that worked the best was the LGBT issues, racial issues, Tunde’s struggle to finally come out to his parents, and Soren’s fear of making his relationship with Tunde public. All of the stuff between those two navigating their relationship was done brilliantly and you really end up caring for both of these characters and wanting them to be happy. I also thought that the police brutality and violence was handled pretty well. To make a quick comparison, similar to how in Happy Death Day the protagonist always finds herself killed before the day ends, Tunde always finds himself in trouble with the police. The tone in this film is admittedly much darker and more serious than in Happy Death Day, and I think why it works here is because it’s plays into the film’s racial themes about Tunde being a black, gay immigrant living in America. It’s very clear what is going on without relying on too much dialgoue. The only moment that didn’t quite work for me was in one scenario where Tunde is being choked to death by a police officer, and he wakes up when the day begins, whispering “I can’t breathe” in his head which the camera really lingers on. It just felt a little too obvious and just hammered the point a little too much, considering we as an audience could already understand these killings were racially motivated and could empathize with Tunde and his journey. It just wasn’t needed.
This film marks Stanley Kalu’s feature writing debut. Overall, I think Stanley did a fantastic job with the protagonist and developing his relationship with Soren, his parents, and his friends to feel rich and fully realized. Structurally, the first few scenes leading up to the murder as well as the final act of the film were both outstanding. No spoilers, but the final act and even the final few scenes were not only incredibly surprising, unexpected, and heartbreaking, but completely made the film come together and make me reconsider everything leading up to it.
With that being said, where the film starts to get a bit muddled is in the second act. That’s partially due to the writing, but also in the direction. After Tunde is killed within the first 10 minutes, we go back to what seems like the beginning of the day and see everything supposedly leading up to it. After that, there’s a significant lack of clarity as to what’s going on and what the situation is until more than halfway through the film. In a movie like Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow, it’s made clear in the film through the direction, the writing, and the actor’s reactions that they have done and seen all of the events that day before. This is something that isn’t made clear until we are more than halfway through the film. By that point, Tunde had relived the day several times. He wakes up each time and it seems as if he’s waking up from a bad dream. It is only later when we hear Tunde have internal dialgoue where he counts down to an event that has occurred before. He then later acknowledges something that has happened in a previous timeline that has not this time. So after the first 20 or so minutes until about halfway through the film, it just seems as if we are going through different scenarios that the day could play out, which made most of the second act a bit of a slog. It also makes the writing feel a bit inconsistent as the internal monolgues and dialogue that Tunde does, besides him reading his obituary which feels whuch was admitedly a very strong motif, very sparse and ultimately doesn’t contribute much. I feel like they should have used it more or not at all to express what he was experiencing and if he is aware of what is going on, or not at all, outside of the obituary statements.
There were some other inconsistencies with the direction and writing, outside of a lack of clarity on the rules of the story. The most egregious is the writing for the high school students outside of Tunde and Soren, especially Marley Meyers. In a film that is rich with nuance in the dialogue and themes, it was very jarring to then transition to this incredibly cliche popular student’s high school dialgoue. The editing and direction here was also very out of place in this one scene where the three beautiful popular girls walked into the school on a low angle, in slow motion, with upbeat pop music. It felt like something right out of a Disney Channel Original film. Especially in a coming of age story, it makes sense that it would have popular music, however, I think that the use of popular music in this film was a bit too frequent, and even distracted from the emotions of some of the scenes. Likewise, considering how well written most of the relationships were, I had a hard time believing that Tunde and Marley would be best friends. While it creates a lot of tension, I think that Marley was set up and written as ultimtle a too cliched and steroetypical character that I couldn’t believe that she would consider Tunde, a more shy and reserved kid, as her best friend, even though Marley does get a bit more development later on. Besides Marley, and a few scenes in the school, most of the dialoge is extremely well written. There’s this great conversation between Tunde and Soren’s father that absolutely proves how well in tune and passionate the director and writer are with these themes and characters.
Verdict: 3 out of 5 Stars
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson (2019) proves itself as a star vehicle for both Steven Silver and Spencer Neville, who both shine in their respective roles and with their spectacular on-screen chemistry. Not only does the film feature a fantastic, well-written protagonist, tackles hard-hitting subject matter with a lot of nuance and great dialogue surrounding said issues, shine a light on the complex and empathetic relationship between Soren and Tunde, but it also features great cinematography, some great moments of direction, as well as a relentless, emotionally powerful opening 15 minutes and final act. Unfortunately, some of that is a bit bogged down by inconsistent and/or unclear story beats, some clunky directing and editing choices, and some very cliched writing and character choices. Nevertheless, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a truly timely story that I hope leads Stanley Kalu to create more passionately-told stories in the future.