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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

White Lie (2021)

White Lie is about a student who fakes a cancer diagnosis for the attention and financial gain, and then struggles to keep up with that lie. It stars, among others, Kacey Rohl, Amber Anderson, Martin Donovan, Thomas Olajide, Connor Jessup, and Sharon Lewis. It is written and directed by Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas, and Thomas also acted as cinematographer. The music is by Lev Lewis, and that's as good a place as any to start things. 

After an opening of Katie Arenson (Rohl) shaving her head and giving the audience an idea of what this movie might be, the music kicks things off with a quick pace that mostly confirms it. That pace is accompanied by the opening credits and Katie hugging students, accepting donations, and living the lie with ease and grace. Within that all that though, there are this drum beat and guitar riff hinting at the pressure of maintaining everything. That, maintaining everything, and Katie's character is where the movie could fall apart at a moment's notice, but it remarkably doesn't. 

White Lie's greatest strength, aside from an exceptional cast, is in its script. Lewis and Thomas have thought of every aspect of what goes into not just performing fraud like this, but also how many different parties it can involve, all the costs, the different avenues it can take, and most importantly the best way to confront someone who's faking an illness and how someone's who's faking can deflect that confrontation. So, an as example, Katie has a medical resident, Dr. Jabari Jordan (Olajide)  help her forge medical records from the ground up, so a complete medical history starting from her diagnosis is necessary. In most movies, this stops at "what kind of cancer do you have?" White Lie keeps this moment going, "what type of melanoma do you have?" And they use someone else's actual records that can match up with the chemotherapy regimen she told people she had. 

Still from White Lie
Crowdfunding and cash donations each play a significant role in maintaining the illusion | Property of Rock Salt Releasing

Lewis and Thomas were interviewed by Karen Benardello at the Toronto International Film Festival during the film's release. They said "When you start doing research into people who fake cancer, a lot of the stories are pretty carbon copy...We did do a lot of research with lawyers and doctors, to help make the story feel real..." Even with a clear roadmap, it's not an easy thing to depict in a movie, especially one that doesn't show that roadmap ahead of time and has the audience as in-the-moment as the main character. 

Keeping scenes going a little longer than expected and keeping everything in the moment are a very naturalistic approach to filmmaking and letting this story unfold, and that's what really stuck with me during the movie. An example of this would be how someone who doubts the story comes into play. It's the big third act bombshell in front of a crowd or even a couple people. It's a Facebook post on the fundraiser/event page. As true to life as it gets, with all the right follow-through to a plot like that.  A result of this is there's so much we don't know because the filmmakers don't waste their runtime or want to force exposition dumps on us or their actors. This leads to some notable moments like when Katie's father, Doug (Martin Donovan), gets the name of Katie's partner, Jennifer (Amber Anderson), wrong and is quickly corrected. It may have been intentional, it may have been something that just worked out on-screen, but either way it works and fits this tone. There's only one moment when the movie isn't like this, and it's more noticeable than it would be in any other film. It's just one cut during a "pivotal reveal." It seems like a better take just had to be used, but if the camera was still rolling, maybe that didn't have to be the case? It was just oddly jarring because of everything onscreen before and since. 

Jennifer (Amber Anderson) | Property of Rock Salt Releasing

Finally, I want to talk about the character of Katie herself. She is where it's easy to step away from the technical aspects of the movie and get into something more. It seems like the filmmakers researched people as thoroughly as the intricacies of their actions. At least up to a point, I didn't not feel forced to judge her, and that's a surprising feeling others may encounter, too. There's sympathy somewhere in her story, and it is what sets the movie apart from anything else like it, although it's possible, based on a different interview "no one had made a film about faking cancer for personal gain." That's as far as they know. So that's another reason why research was key. Something everyone involved really seemed to nail is how people react to this pressure. Katie is able to deflect, project, and think fast, but in the end there's are still some signs, still some missteps. It was something I heard on a podcast. Now please, please take this with a grain of salt because everyone is different, and this is highly subjective. It just happens to fit this piece of fiction well. When accused, those who are telling the truth get angry, and the liars will cry and double down with these "convincing statements." She's not a master manipulator, she just is lucky that a lot of people need to hold on to what they believe. It's all incredibly well shown through Rohl, as she portrays confidence, that in this situation hints at someone mentally and/or emotionally unbalanced. It's a really tough role to pull off, especially with the genuine warmth trapped behind the lie.  

So, with all that said, this is an incredibly engaging film. Please give it a shot. 
 
4/5

A screener of this movie was provided to me by TriCoast and Rock Salt Releasing. I was not compensated for this review. 

White Lie will be available for pre-order on 12/20 and Rock Salt Releasing will release it on various digital streaming platforms on 1/5/2021 (DirecTV, Amazon, InDemand, iTunes, FlixFling, AT&T, Vimeo on Demand, Vudu, Fandango & Google Play).
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