The Subject marks the first big, serious role American Pie star Jason Biggs (“Don’t you recognize me? I’m the pie-f****r!”) has taken on in quite some time. The comedic actor is following in the footsteps of Kevin James and Adam Sandler, both of whom proved, earlier this year no less, that they’ve got serious acting chops when given the chance to show them off. James is the more apt comparison here since the movie in which he staked a – rather convincing, it has to be said – claim for himself as a capital-A actor was a horror called Becky. Although The Subject doesn’t go full-bore horror, it’s horror adjacent.
Biggs’ character, too, is horrific. He stars as documentary filmmaker Phil, a decent guy, at least outwardly, whose bread and butter are stories about at-risk youth, typically POC, living on the fringes of society in New York City. Phil himself lives upstate in a grand, modern house, the money for which came from the profits of a previous film in which the subject was beaten to death right in front of him. As a result, Phil has faced significant criticism from those who consider his work exploitative. However, since he’s a straight, white man, Phil is still respected regardless. The Subject picks up with him working on a new project while still obsessing over the previous one.
However, as Phil’s long-suffering partner (Anabelle Accosta, doing a little bit too much in an underwritten role) points out, he’s not necessarily looking for answers in the old footage, but rather proof that he wasn’t really in the wrong. When he hires a new assistant, Marley (Carra Patterson, looking strikingly like a young Maya Rudolph), who believes Phil can do no wrong, it complicates matters further. To add insult to injury, the camera has been turned on Phil as he becomes the, well, subject of a stalker’s documentary. And, as he’s told ominously, he really doesn’t like being on the other side.
The Subject is a funny little film. The product of two female creators, Lanie Zipoy, who directed, and Chisa Hutchinson, who penned the screenplay, it’s got incredibly lofty ambitions, tackling everything from snobbery and gate-keeping in film-making to class and income disparity and even sexism, racism, and the exploitation of lower-income communities. The result is slightly slapdash, its focus flitting from one thing to the next without really settling on any one subject for too long. The stalker element feels underdeveloped, almost like an afterthought at times, while Phil’s relationship with Marley takes up too much time in comparison.
There are plenty of POCs involved, and the performances, particularly from the unknown cast assembled to take part in Phil’s (very convincing!) new HBO series, Hoods, does a stellar job across the board. But the focus is on Phil, because Zipoy and Hutchinson’s main concern is how we, as white folks, fail POC. The Subject often looks as though it was shot on the fly for real on the mean streets of NYC, which adds to its close-to-the-bone aesthetic – you can almost feel how cold it is when Phil’s skeleton crew is huddled around trying to get interviews done as fast as possible.
Everything about it feels authentic, right down to the queasy nature of Phil’s dubious aspirations. The movie leaves whether he’s actually a good person up to the audience to decide, refusing to provide any easy answers to such meaty, complex questions. The final 20 minutes or so take place entirely in Phil’s house, with a two-hander between him and another actor (Aunjanue Ellis), whose identity won’t be spoiled here, playing out without any breaks for us to gather ourselves. It’s the strongest section of the entire movie, undisturbed by the often emotionally manipulative score, that finally makes the case the filmmakers have been trying to communicate, with middling success, for the previous hour plus.
Biggs impresses in a tough role that requires him to shed his sweet, soft-bellied public persona for something altogether knottier and much less empathetic. He excels in the final sequence with Ellis, going to darker places than fans of American Pie, Loser, et al could ever imagine him being brave enough to go. It’s an astonishing performance, utterly without vanity, that marks Biggs out as an actor with further depths to be plumbed. Ellis, too, is exceptional playing a tortured woman who’s been looking for answers in all the wrong places because nobody else cares to even ask.
There are elements to The Subject that really don’t work, for instance the fact the stalker is seemingly standing close enough that Phil notices them but not close enough for him to actually identify the person, and most of the peripheral characters are too lightly-sketched to fully connect. However, the ambition of all involved is remarkable and, although it stumbles more than it soars, this is an impressively unvarnished real-life horror story that will surely strike a chord with anybody who’s even minimally aware of the current news cycle. That final act, in particular, is a stunner that makes it all worth it.
WICKED RATING: 7/10