Michael Caine, Odeya Rush and Katie Holmes star in a teen comedy/foreign dictator mash-up.
It’s been said that movies are a universal medium, capable of connecting to the ways, plights, and struggles of different cultures. “A machine of empathy” and all that.
Although Dear Dictator, a relatively unlikely teen comedy, centrally involves a foreign despot, at least in part, it is not that movie. The Third World dictator in question, Anton Vincent, is played by Michael Caine (of all people), his country remaining a vague background detail, if it’s mentioned by name at all. It’s intended as so generic that it’s realized, in all its brevity, through bizarre use of older stock footage of places like Haiti.
Meanwhile, it’s also been said that Michael Caine, back when he was prone to accepting any role under the sun, would make one of his primary selection criterias the locale of the shoot. Which helps to explain his presence in such tropically-based films as Jaws: The Revenge and Blame it on Rio. Spending most of his screen time in a suburban American garage, Dear Dictator also defies that previous line of reasoning.
So, now that I’ve ruled out some of what this film isn’t, it’s time to focus on the less eventful notion of what Dear Dictator is.
Odeya Rush plays high school outcast Tatiana Mills. Tatiana suffers from that problem of so many attractive young leads we’re told are ugly ducks: Mean Girls. Not the movie - the actual girls who are mean. (Although the movie Mean Girls is talked about). She’s learned to be a modern punk, sporting t-shirts that say “Eat Me” and “Piss Off”, the perfect top to compliment her crazy-high platform boots. Tatiana is not a hateful person, though she loves to get a rise out of her teacher by using a “write to your hero” assignment to correspond with despised foreign dictator, Anton Vincent (Caine). She’s articulate and punchy, owing more than she knows to her well-scripted fore-bearers on Dawson’s Creek.
Speaking of Dawson’s Creek, Tatiana’s mom, Darlene, is played by one of that show’s stars, Katie Holmes. A single dental hygienist who’s carrying on an obsessive affair with her married boss (Seth Green), Darlene is what they call “a hot mess.” Neurotic, paranoid and always oversharing personal life details with her ever-repulsed but understanding daughter, she exists in a state of “survival mode,, or an approximation that’s as close to it as any movie that isn’t The Florida Project is willing to get. Call it “light comedy survival mode.”
Then, Anton Vincent is overthrown!! The rebels in his country have stormed the palace in a mostly implied coup d’état, leaving Vincent missing and presumed dead.
In actuality, he’s made his way to the American suburban garage of Darlene and Tatiana. How he, as a globally despised figure, infiltrated the U.S. border is a skipped detail, although it stands to reason that bypassing numerous likely designated safe-houses in favor of traveling hundreds of miles to try his luck at the home of the high school girl who wrote him a few letters he enjoyed getting makes some sort of light comedy sense. I guess.
Anyhow, it turns out that Vincent is quite the handyman, much to Darlene’s delight. He teaches Tatiana how to overthrow the Mean Girls at her school, though she tells him she is definitely not cool with torture. It’s all rather charming if innocuous, though it obviously sees itself as more edgy.
As is the case with most any good movie, much of the success of Dear Dictator lies with the casting. However silly and far-fetched the story concept may be on the whole, the solid and committed performances of Rush, Holmes and Caine make for an enjoyable experience.
Wishing to be an offbeat teen comedy with a subversive punk streak (think Heathers), Dear Dictator might miss that mark even as it succeeds in being a perfectly passable way to spend a low-energy evening. (For authentic under the radar bad girl teen movie of the moment, seek out Max Winkler’s Flower). As directed by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, Dear Dictator’s heart is visible through its low budget seams. Though in-world, most of the characters are jaded, and on set, not every wall seems to reach exactly to the ceiling, the general concept actually works, and holds together like it should.
The notion of a ruthless third world dictator turning out to be a semi-charming retiree in hiding may not play as universally as many other films, but it's far from being torture.