Starring: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash-Betts, Emily Yancy, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Finn Wittrock, Victoria Pedretti, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Isha Carlos Blaaker
Director: Ava DuVernay
Despite being well acted and delivering thoughtful commentaries on racism, caste systems, and personal grief, Origin is as dry as a college lecture. Nothing about Ava DuVernay’s direction is bad, but it’s not particularly dynamic either. It’s not all her fault, though. The message is certainly important and, from a scholarly perspective, incredibly fascinating, but it’s not built for a feature length narrative. This would have been much better and perhaps more impactful as a documentary because, as is, it’s like watching someone act out a doctoral thesis paper. Personally, I can’t say I enjoy movies that feel like homework.
The story of Origin is one of importance, but it’s hidden inside a very tedious film. Director Ava DuVernay brings us something that feels more like a college lecture than a concise and interesting narrative. This has nothing to do with the performances, but in the way the subject matter is approached in such a dry manner. It truly felt like I was watching The History Channel at times, and although I sympathize with the trauma Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) faced, everything surrounding her is lethargic. Wilkerson writes “a world without caste would set everyone free;” a lasting message that deserved a better film.
I can’t exactly explain how director Ava DuVernay shoots Origin, but the camera work placed it somewhere between narrative and documentary. It’s like she said, “y’all not gon’ watch a documentary? Okay, imma make sure you get this information anyway!” And damn if I didn’t get that info. In the film, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor’s Isabel is trying to find connection between seemingly unconnected concepts, and DuVernay connects the narrative with the history lessons through the same ideals Isabel does: love, grief, trauma, and compassion. This delivery method masked the triggers similar movies often elicit, and it results in a powerfully engrossing, expertly written film.
There is an old rule in storytelling: Show, don't tell. Origin largely abandons that rule. Instead of delivering what should have been a documentary on the caste system, writer/director Ava DuVernay opts for an aggressively unsubtle and borderline Hallmark approach to the narrative form. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is terrific, and she could gain something from this, but the way in which the message is presented is flatly directed, a structural disaster, and full of moments that are emotionally manipulative. The final thirty minutes, in particular…I'm not gonna lie…were horrendous. I had high hopes for this one, but I was very disappointed.
This film was reviewed by Quentin, Nick, and Adriano as part of Bitesize Breakdown's coverage of the 2023 Venice International Film Festival and the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, respectively.