Out gay writer/ director Sebastián Silva makes squirm-inducing films. In his breakthrough, “The Maid,” in 2009, the title character grappled with issues of class and power in an upper middle class Chilean household. His 2015 feature “Nasty Baby” chronicled a gay couple encountering harassment from a mentally ill homophobe. Silva’s latest work, “Tyrel,” is in much the same vein as it, too, addresses an outsider struggling to find his place in an unwelcoming environment. It is a compelling comedy-drama that, like all of the filmmaker’s work, will get under a viewer’s skin.
Silva shoots with a handheld camera and in a loose, semi-improvised style that immerses viewers in the characters’ lives. That’s an effective approach for helping audiences identify with the outsider protagonist, but it also means enduring the bad behavior of other characters.
When his girlfriend’s family is in town, Tyler — not Tyrel — (Jason Mitchell of “Mudbound”) heads up to the Catskills with his colleague Johnny (Christopher Abbott) to attend a birthday party getaway for Pete (Caleb Landry Jones). The weekend gets off to an inauspicious start as Tyler and Johnny run out of gas on the way to the cabin. When Pete arrives with some gas, he and Tyler, the sole African American in the group getting together, get off on the wrong foot. Tyler ends up never feeling comfortable during the weekend.
Once at the cabin, things go downhill almost immediately, when a game involving accents gets offensive. One guy is supposed to speak in a “black” accent for comic effect. Another character uses the word “faggot” — but insists he didn’t mean to be homophobic. Even as the joking friends try to apologize for their insensitivity, we can see their true natures. Tyler bonds more with the Cosmo, the dog belonging to Nico (Nicolas Arze), the owner of the cabin who is hosting the party, than any of the men who are there.
Silva makes this point repeatedly as Tyler goes off on his own to call his girlfriend or just take a nap. He can’t get into it when the other guys sing R.E.M. songs, and he doesn’t feel accepted or that he has much in common with the others — including the Argentine Nico or Dylan (out gay musician Roddy Bottum), the one gay man in the group. Even as Tyler tries to be a good guest, his detachment causes a rift between him and Johnny that both men seem unable to discuss. When Alan (Michael Cera) shows up, Tyler momentarily makes a friend, but tensions soon arise between them.
“Tyrel” never creates one big issue that separates Tyler from the others, which is what make the film so smart. But that may make the film feel underdeveloped. Silva’s point here is that it is the other men’s obliviousness that rankles Tyler the most. The conversations about religion and politics and the pervasive dude-bro masculinity are not the problem; it’s the smaller things — the repeated micro-aggressions, as it were — that drive Tyler to the breaking point. Even as he escapes momentarily and sits in the tub contemplating his discomfort, Pete interrupts by coming in to use the toilet.
Silva effectively employs dark humor in scenes of Pete playing whiskey slaps with Tyler and wrestling with him on the floor, and when Alan tries to trade his rabbit-fur coat for Tyler’s do-rag. The subtle racism and classism in these scenes speak volumes.
The filmmaker pulls a strong performance from Mitchell in the title role. He aptly demonstrates the weariness of being isolated in a group of men even as he as he tries to soldier on through a bad situation not of his own making. When he finally has a heart to heart with Johnny, his pain and frustration are clear.
In support, Cera is amusing as the clueless motormouth Alan, and Jones’ Pete proves a good foil for Tyler. As the two men passive-aggressively tangle, the mood is freighted.
“Tyrel” is a small film, but it is quite potent.
TYREL | Directed by Sebatián Silva | Magnolia Pictures | Opens Dec. 5 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com