Review – The Art of Self Defense (2019): Fantasia International Film Festival!

by Vincent Leblanc

Back for its 23rd edition, running from July 11th to August 1st, the Fantasia International Film Festival returns to Concordia University in downtown Montreal. To kick off my own 11th participation, I selected the Quebec Premiere of the US dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense. It was an advanced screening in a way because the film comes out on July 12th in the USA but only on July 19th in Canadian theaters. The Art of Self-Defense had its World Premiere at SXSW back in March to seemingly great reviews.

The film was written and directed by Riley Stearns, whose first feature film Faults was presented at Fantasia back in 2014. The Art of Self-Defense stars Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, and Imogen Poots.  Since writer/director Stearns and star Eisenberg were in NYC the same evening for a screening, the festival crew showed us short pre-taped video messages by each of them before the film. Stearns said he would have loved to be there, but hoped we would enjoy the film. Eisenberg hoped for the same saying that it’s OK to laugh and said Montreal was one of his favorite cities. 

If you’re not familiar with The Art of Self-Defense, here’s what it is about (copied from the Fantasia website):

“Casey Davies is an accountant. He is learning French. He eats alone at diners. He has a pet dachshund. He is often mistaken for a woman on the phone. He photocopies men’s magazines. His attempts to make friends at the office result in being his shunned. One night, Casey Davies is beaten and mugged by a group of masked men on motorcycles. His usual anxiety is compounded. He considers buying a gun; but then one day, he passes a karate school, and his life takes a strange and dark turn. Under the tutelage of Sensei, Casey begins to transform himself from a whimpering weakling to an aggressive douchebag, unaware that his new obsession will lead somewhere far beyond what he had in mind.”

I became aware of The Art of Self-Defense only two or three weeks ago when a friend shared a trailer for the film. I watched it and thought it looked interesting without looking too much into it. Then, the film was announced for the festival. I wasn’t sure if it was a full-on comedy or something more subtle, but I figured it would be a film to watch with the Fantasia audience. It was the right decision. 

While we will have to wait a little bit to see if the film is going to become a classic, the words “offbeat” and “dark” definitely apply to this comedy. There are some hilarious bits in there, but the majority of the humor comes from offbeat/absurd situations or character reactions (or lack thereof). You might just laugh or smile when you don’t expect to. The film takes somewhat of a dark turn a little after the middle part of the film and it was interesting. Most of the turns of the story did not surprise me but they were well executed. 

Overall, I had a really good time with this movie. Some corners of the audience laughed louder than I did, but I really enjoyed the film in my own way.  I’m not really good at analyzing the deeper meaning of movies, but know that this film talks about toxic masculinity, and that it laughs about it. 

Jesse Eisenberg was ideal for the role of Casey. I’m not too familiar with Alessandro Nivola but he was great in the role of the dojo master, Sensei. Imogen Poots has a smaller part in the film as Anna, but she was great too. 

As mentioned above, the film comes out in the US on July 12th and in Canada on July 19th. 


I am giving The Art of Self-Defense a 3.5 out of 5 Hairpieces!

#Fantasia2019 #FantasiaFest #TheArtOfSelfDefense

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