Film Review – Self Reliance

Self Reliance

Self Reliance

Jake Johnson takes on the triple threat role of writer, director, and star of Self Reliance (2023). His feature-length directorial debut is equal parts absurdist thriller and sweet romance. Like that of The Most Dangerous Game (1932), the film uses the concept of humans being hunted down for sport. In this scenario, contestants enter a dark web game show. The goal is to survive 30 days without being killed by unknown hunters. If they are alive at the end, they will be rewarded one million dollars. The catch: To avoid innocent bystanders from getting hurt, contestants can stand within an arm’s length of another person to stay “safe.” If they are with someone else, the hunters will not attack them. This, you might imagine, is tougher than it seems. What if one person needs to go to the bathroom? How do they manage taking showers?

While the premise is farfetched, Johnson uses it to examine grounded, humanistic themes. He stars as Tommy, a mild mannered but mundane individual. His everyday life is comprised of sleeping, exercise, a dead-end job, and drinking alone in the same bar. Wash, rinse, repeat. Tommy is stuck on automatic – he is so afraid of change that he still lives with his mother (whom he describes as his “roommate”). Things change when Andy Samberg (playing himself) shows up out of the blue in a limousine, taking Tommy to an abandoned warehouse where two Greenlanders (Bjorn Johnson, John Hans Tester) offer him a spot on their game show. Tommy must really be in a rut – even though it is explained that his life will be in danger, he accepts with a shrug. Anything to break the repetitiveness of his entire existence, right?   


We see what Johnson is getting at right away. By having Tommy enter the game, it forces him to break out of his self-imposed social constraints. Getting out into the world is hard and often embarrassing – as an introvert myself, I can relate. Some people try breaking this by joining a club, meeting people on a dating app, or going on a trip. Not many would consider being in a life-or-death reality show, but that highlights the level of Tommy’s desperation. Past trauma has stunted his growth as a person. In a weird way, the game show acts as a remedy to that. Attaching himself to someone else to stay alive lends to some comedic situations, such as his family’s shock when Tommy introduces them to the homeless man James (Biff Wiff) whom he hired to be a round-the-clock companion.

The heart of the narrative isn’t fully revealed until we meet Maddy (Anna Kendrick). We discover that Maddy is also in the game herself. To make sure that each person is in the clear, Tommy and Maddy become partners, sticking side by side until their 30 days are up. Being around each other that much will ultimately lead to some personal insights being shared. That’s where the romantic angle comes into play. Johnson and Kendrick have strong on-screen chemistry, although the screenplay doesn’t take full advantage of it. As a shorthand way of developing their connection, the editing cuts up their interactions with an extended montage. We see Tommy and Maddy laughing, eating take out, dancing, and horsing around in the flirtatious way people do. The sequence is pretty heavy handed. I didn’t buy that their relationship was forming during this section. In its execution, the montage looks like a parody of all those rom coms that do the exact same thing. It’s a weird dynamic: The movie feels most alive when Tommy and Maddy are together, but the worst scene features them supposedly falling in love.

As a director, Johnson does a good job of developing a sense of paranoia. As each day passes, Tommy’s suspicion that the killers are near escalates. Johnson translates this by taking Tommy’s routine and altering the tone ever so subtly. Activities that were once boring are given a dash of concern, then fear, then panic. Each time Tommy sits at his desk or works out, his stress levels are increased. Slow motion represents his perspective as he glances at every stranger that passes by. Is the person next to him waiting for the perfect opportunity to kill him? Is everyone in on it? Can he trust his friends and family or are they part of it too?  Johnson’s reactions to all the bizarre events make for plenty of laughs. One of the funnier bits happens when several of the game show’s production assistants reveal themselves to give Tommy some much needed advice. The way they slink and slither out of every possible hiding spot is sudden and hilarious.


Self Reliance has its share of issues. The game itself is shoddily realized, with the details being too fuzzy to understand. The plot structure is episodic without narrative flow. Tommy will go from hanging out with James to meeting Anna’s mom to visiting his own family and back again. There’s a staccato like effect in how the scenes are connected. This makes the emotional element watered down. Occasionally, Tommy will encounter someone from his past – someone who may have had a positive or negative influence on him. I suppose these interactions are to get a better understanding of Tommy’s psyche and find some closure to his personal issues. But because the narrative is so disjointed, big dramatic moments end up being flat. Worst of all, the strongest piece of the entire film – Anna Kendrick – is vastly underused. Kendrick turns Maddy into one of the few bright spots for Tommy, that’s why their scenes are the most memorable (she’s all over the advertising for a reason). But because Kendrick’s screentime is limited, she comes off more as a glorified cameo than an important, contributing character. A lessen to all filmmakers: The more Anna Kendrick, the better.

The absurd nature makes up for a lot of the shortcomings – if only to see where things go. Johnson adds a dash of ambiguity to the story, so that we’re never sure if we can count on Tommy as a reliable protagonist. One interesting idea would be to re-watch the movie while considering the point of view of Tommy’s family. Seeing his increasingly erratic behavior through their eyes would make for a fascinating experiment. At any given moment, Tommy can be going head-to-head with an Ellen DeGeneres lookalike, getting chased by a sumo wrestler, or facing off against a sword-wielding samurai (sometimes all at the same time). Should all of this be taken at face value?

In fact, the biggest disappointment of Self Reliance is that it doesn’t go far enough – whether it’s in the thrills, nuttiness, or romance. We want it to push forward, to really take things to an extreme, but it doesn’t quite get there. There’s plenty to like, and Johnson displays the talent to helm a thought-provoking movie. This is a promising first step – let’s see what he does in the next go around.




Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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