By Thomas Puhr.

As a whole, Lisa’s journey feels all the more real thanks to this unpolished packaging – proof positive that you can achieve all kinds of magic with one camera and some game, engaging performers in front of it.”

The “love letter to New York” subgenre is beyond having been done to death, which is why I began Justin Zuckerman’s Yelling Fire in an Empty Theater (2022) with some trepidation. The film follows the loosely connected exploits of Lisa (Isadora Leiva), who has left small-town America to pursue a career as a cartoonist in the big city. She moves in with Holly (Kelly Cooper), who barely qualifies as an acquaintance. “Our mothers are friends,” Holly explains to her boyfriend/other roommate, Bill (Michael Patrick Nicholson).

Lisa awkwardly drifts through postgrad helplessness (the inspiration, perhaps, for the film’s longwinded title), encounters relationship problems with her feckless boyfriend, struggles to find a job that isn’t totally degrading, etc. “I’ve seen this all before,” you may think to yourself. But underneath these surface trappings – we even get a cutesy animated opening credits sequence, replete with indie rock – is a surprisingly biting criticism of the type of film Yelling Fire at first appears to emulate. Maybe life in the big city isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, maybe it kind of sucks. And what’s so bad about Florida, anyway?

Before she steps out of the airport, Lisa is confronted with obstacles to her idealistic aspirations. When she shares her plan with another passenger, the woman offers her a fifty dollar bill, and some words of warning: “I don’t know what you think New York is going to be like. But I have to tell you, it won’t be.” Indeed, her roommates are not so much quirky as they are inconsiderate. During an early, humorous exchange, Holly reveals that she’s just finished painting her new arrival’s bedroom. “Don’t open the window, because then the paint won’t dry,” she explains. “But I’ll leave this door open, so you don’t suffocate.”

Zuckerman cleverly peels away different characters’ facades. Holly’s affected bohemian lifestyle and platitudes about just doing what you love until the money comes later (“it always does” she reassures Lisa) don’t hold much water when we learn that her primary source of income is her rich father. And Sean (Austin Cassel), Lisa’s spacey “boss” at the travel agency where she’s temping, only has the position because his uncle owns the business (he seems more surprised than anyone when they actually get a customer on the phone).

All of this would be rather depressing if the characters were treated with scorn, but the first time writer-director maintains a tone of warm sincerity – even empathy – toward their desperate efforts to seem successful at all costs. Part of the film’s charm comes from realizing, along with Lisa, that these people are merely pretending to be hip, confident urbanites. They’re still trying to figure things out. It’s here that Leiva’s laid back, calibrated performance proves crucial; she captures the frightening process behind learning that those who seem to have made it are just humans like anyone else. At the end of the day, Zuckerman isn’t mocking his characters’ ambitions but questioning their collective assumption that the only place to seriously pursue them is in New York.

It certainly helps that Yelling Fire is often quite funny, too. The actors prove adept at getting laughs from unexpectedly recurring gags: Holly hollering orders to an ever-turned-off Alexa; characters thinking the briefest of pauses is reason enough to try to kiss Lisa; and everyone assuming that in New York you have no choice but to smoke. Some clever wordplay also underlines how the characters are not as smart as they seem to think. Consider one of many heated arguments between Holly and Bill, who quickly establish themselves as that couple who never manage to break up despite their constant bickering: Bill, mistaking Holly’s use of the word “facetious” for “fascist,” accuses her of being a Nazi. Or a borderline absurdist moment in which Sean thinks Lisa says she is the new “tent” instead of the new “temp.” Not exactly the most sophisticated humor, to be sure, but one rooted in what feel like everyday misunderstandings and faux pas.

Yelling Fire has already garnered some attention for its DIY aesthetic. “Made for less than the rent of the Brooklyn apartment that it was filmed in,” its tagline proudly announces. I suspect this statement may very well be true, as the film’s 72 minutes were shot on a Mini DV cassette camcorder (you can occasionally see the autofocus at work). This home video quality nicely complements the narrative’s low-key, low-stakes tone (though it isn’t as successful in capturing some strange, abrupt tonal shifts in the closing minutes). As a whole, Lisa’s journey feels all the more real thanks to this unpolished packaging – proof positive that you can achieve all kinds of magic with one camera and some game, engaging performers in front of it.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.   

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