In Stanleyville, the surreal and absurdist feature-length debut from director and co-writer Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, five people are compelled to search for human enlightenment. Entrants in a contest, the five are confined to a single room and asked to complete feats which grow stranger as the competition continues. If the point of Stanleyville is to illustrate the search for meaning, then it does so using an interesting conceit: gobbledygook.
While working at her stultifying office job, Anna (Susanne Wuest) decides to quit work and leave her wretched family. After ditching her phone and her purse in a public trash can, she goes to a local shopping center. As she sits in the mall pondering her next move, Anna is approached by Homunculus (Julian Richings). Homunculus informs Anna that she has been specifically chosen to be part of an “international contest to probe the very essence of mind/body articulation” in order to “achieve personal transcendence.”
The grand prize for the person that wins the contest is an orange SUV. However, Homonculus claims that “the true value is the challenge.” Intrigued and flattered to be included, Anna reports to the pavilion where the other participants await.
Once all the characters are together, Stanleyville finds the freedom to get a bit strange. All of the challenges in the eight-round contest have technical names such as “Diogenes Nose-Peg” and “Vital Capacity,” five-dollar-phrases to describe silly activities. The “Vital Capacity” round, instead of dealing with the soul or the bounds of the human spirit, involves how well the participants’ lungs work while blowing up small latex balloons.
Besides Anna, the quietest and most idealistic of the group, we are introduced to characters mired in both self-absorption and capitalism. One of them, a body guy with the hilarious name of Bofill Pancreas (George Tchortov), can barely utter a sentence without mentioning the multi-level marketing scheme in which he is entrenched.
As Homunculus, Richings is a creepy joy to behold. Thin, awkward, filled with secrets, Richings switches back and forth with stunning immediacy from bemused overseer to loyal soldier, only following orders. One is never quite sure if Homunculus holds the keys to the master plan or if he is as befuddled as everyone else.
When Richings is not on-screen, the film’s holding power diminishes. The quirkiness of the characters and wondering who will emerge as the ultimate victor devolve into scenes of bickering. Stanleyville becomes progressively more curious, but the script doesn’t go far enough “out there” to fulfill its promise. The movie is too subdued in places where wildness would have been appreciated. There is, however, a delightful mean streak to the story that begins to blossom towards the end of the second act. That increases the enjoyment of the film quite a bit.
The big question in Stanleyville is not who will win the contest. Instead, one wonders what Stanleyville means. The dialogue, filled with nonsense and buzzwords, sounds like it almost means something. In many ways, watching Stanleyville feels like listening to a self-help audiobook. You know that what you’re being told is supposed to help you achieve a higher level of living, but does it? One may still be left with burning philosophical questions and quickly scurry on to the next guru.
On that level, Stanleyville is a rousing success. By filling the screen with obtuse words and mundane activities, one is left with the impression that the meaning of life is nothing more than the search for the meaning of life. The satirization and over-use of double talk and convoluted mission statements is pervasive through Stanleyville, and ultimately frustrating. Despite its lighthearted color palette and comedic overtones, Stanleyville is one of the bleakest movies since the 1970s independent film scene.
Like any work of art, Stanleyville leaves itself open to interpretation. There are no clear-cut answers in Stanleyville, only clues to an ambiguous mystery as old as humanity itself.
Stanleyville opens exclusively at Metrograph NYC on April 22, 2022.