Sundance 2024 Review: LITTLE DEATH, Ambitious, Unconventional, Must-See Filmmaking

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Sundance 2024 Review: LITTLE DEATH, Ambitious, Unconventional, Must-See Filmmaking

There’s a make-it-or-break-it moment in writer-director Jack Begert’s boldly unconventional, existential drama/Hollywood satire, Little Death, that will leave audiences cringing in shock, wonder, and maybe awe. Some might even head for the exits.

Coming as it does at roughly the halfway mark, the moment in question upends everything the audience knows — or thinks they know — about Little Death and the nominal central character, Martin Solomon (David Schwimmer), a financially comfortable, angst-ridden, middle-aged TV writer obsessed with art, sex, and mortality (not necessarily in that order, sometimes all at once). And that’s just the half of it. Literally, as it turns out.

When we first meet the dour-faced, downbeat Solomon, he’s self-consciously musing via voiceover about his life with a capital L. Despite all of the outside markers of success, including a spacious home in the Hollywood Hills, a fiancee, Jessica Klein (Jena Malone), who loves him, and a sizable bank account due to his 11-year stint writing for a popular network show, Solomon feels like he’s missing out. Having much, he wants more.

An unrecognized genius in his own mind, Solomon day and night dreams about an enigmatic woman (Angela Sarafyan) he’s never met before. She’s everything the judgmental, earth-bound Jessica isn’t, mostly because she’s fictional and thus, caters to Solomon’s every need, no matter how self-serving or infantile those needs might be.

Not surprisingly given the subject matter, Solomon hopes to solve all of his messy life’s problems, specifically whether he’ll finally receive the recognition and accolades someone of his immense artistic talent deserves, if he can not only finish his life’s most meaningful work, a semi-autobiographical screenplay about — what else? — his childhood and, of course, directing his screenplay. But being a white, middle-aged man in a rapidly changing, diversifying industry means Solomon has to make some compromises, beginning with a gender swap of his central character.

Solomon’s deep, abiding neuroses, coupled with a touch of narcissism and self-aggrandizement, make him, if not fully relatable, then, at a minimum, incredibly difficult to like. Rooting for Solomon to get everything he wants (e.g., his screenplay produced, the literal woman of his dreams, awards/recognition) almost feels as shallow as Solomon himself, but that’s where a risk-embracing Begert makes a full-body switch, swapping out Solomon and his preoccupations for a different set of characters altogether, Kayla (Talia Ryder) and AJ (Dominic Fike), a couple of low-end drug artists, thieves, and not completely unlike Solomon, dreamers.

While Kayla can't see beyond her next fix, AJ, her longtime friend, dreams of owning and operating his own taco truck business. United by history and a mutual attraction to illicit substances, however, makes AJ, like Solomon before him, unlikely to make his far less grandiose dream a reality. An all-important backpack, green in color, containing AJ’s business plans, not to mention Kayla’s stolen car, and a wayward, gentle-natured Chihuahua, all play a role in Kayla and AJ’s misadventures as they unfold across an event-filled LA night.

At least superficially, Solomon, AJ, and Kayla have little in common. A music video director by trade, Begert pulls out all the visual, aural, and narrative stops for Solomon’s uneven half of the film, including deliberately unattractive CG simulations meant to mirror Solomon’s surface-deep fantasies before shifting to a grounded, naturalistic approach. Out goes the fast cutting, hyper-visual animations, and Solomon’s incessant voiceovers, and in comes something entirely apposite.

With Kayla And AJ’s unexpected entrance, Little Death flips the script, switching from the vices and vicissitudes of Solomon’s life and times to Kayla and AJ’s marginal, marginalized existence in LA, barely scraping by, living on the kindness of strangers and the fumes from their quickly evaporating dreams. Given their socioeconomic status, there’s danger too, mostly in the form of carjacking thugs and Grady (Karl Glusman), a friendless drug supplier and colleague to their regular drug dealer and self-professed friend, Greg (Sante Bentivoglio).

A smooth-brained surfer-dude with an ultra-positive attitude and extremely poor judgment, Greg represents Kayla and AJ’s entry into the dangerous LA underworld and somewhat paradoxically, their possible salvation from that world. He’s a bizarre combination of friend, foe, and mentor-guide. And if it wasn’t for hearing and seeing excerpts from Solomons’s abortive script, it’d feel like something a screenwriter would try to write after deciding to throw out the 'write what you know' line of advice given to most screenwriters.

Little Death also contains — among several, equally valid others — an overarching theme about drugs, substance abuse, and how society treats addicts from different socioeconomic classes, providing a shedload’s worth of excuses for someone like Solomon and a personal pill collection numbering in the hundreds (all prescribed by the finest medical doctors, of course) and bottom-dwelling gutter-punks like Kayla and AJ, dismissed as victims of their own emotional and mental weaknesses and undeserving of empathy or generosity.

While Schwimmer commendably leans heavily into his character’s bloviating, self-entitled unlikability, Ryder and Fike start from a position of audience antipathy only to gradually reveal their characters as fully formed, flawed human beings. It’s to Ryder and Fike’s credit that both Kayla and AJ feel like real people we might meet at a bus stop, a movie theater, or even a party.

In one telling scene moments into the second half, Kayla temporarily removes her protective hoodie to another partygoer, revealing a raw emotional vulnerability in the process. It’s practically a masterclass in acting between Kayla and her scene partner.  

Little Death premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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David SchwimmerDominic FikeJack BegertJena MaloneKarl GlusmanLittle DeathSante BentivoglioTalia Ryder

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