Sundance 2020: “Spree” Goes for the Kill But Lacks the Edge

Spree Courtesy: Sundance Institute

Eugene Kotlyarenko’s satire about a rideshare driver who murders for online fame lacks the bite or nuance its premise deserves.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.)

It was just over six years ago when Sharkeisha went viral for assaulting her friend on camera. The World Star video became a meme goldmine and made headlines, and while it seemed shocking at the time, it obviously wasn’t the last. Six months later in the wake of the Isla Vista massacres, the shooter’s face spread like wildfire as he waged polemics against those he felt had polluted the earth. He sat in his car, camera on his dashboard, and tried to justify his misogyny and racism. Now he has his own Wikipedia page.

Of course, the 2010s didn’t birth this sort of infamy, but, like some sort of trickle-down economics, it helped normalize it. YouTube “comedians” like Sam Pepper churned out “prank” videos so he could justify groping women on camera. A few years later, Logan Paul went from Vine to CNN to apologize for a video in which he vlogged a dead body in a Japanese suicide forest. But what about the kids that aren’t famous, the ones that aren’t pulling pranks on the homeless?

That’s where Kurt Kurdle (Joe Keery) comes in. After introducing him through a Draw My Life video, Spree tells his story in found footage format often through diptych or triptychs. Live stream, screen share, and security camera footage follow the rise of @KurtsWorld96. He drives for a rideshare app called Spree across Los Angeles in hopes of getting some Good Content; he’s decked out his car with cameras. It’s only when bad things happen that people start to watch, however. What starts getting him the attention, you ask? Live-streamed murder.

As provocative as it aims to be, the biggest appeal of Spree is in its plausibility. (We already live four years past that time an Uber driver went on a rampage that left six dead.) Hence, the exaggeration of Eugene Kotlyarenko’s sixth feature takes a pretty long time to come around, and when it does, it goes on for far too long and without enough edge. His script gives us some glimpses at Kurt’s wannabe socialite of a dad (David Arquette), but aside from that, he’s just another bratty kid looking for attention.

The individual set pieces manage to entertain as well, but again, there just isn’t enough here.

Which is to say, why care about this one? There’s no full understanding of his psychology, no real grasp of his entitlement. One rider (Linas Phillips) teases Kurt with buzzwords like “snowflake” and “libtard” only to become the first victim, but this doesn’t glean much. Is Kurt taking out the worst people he comes across, or is he killing the ones that deal the biggest blows to his ego? Keery’s beady-eyed work is too one-note to distinguish when he’s playing the sympathy card for those watching at home or if it’s a foible to his character.

This sort of thing goes on for a while until Kurt picks up a comedian named Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), whom he leeches onto for shout outs. But while the movie develops her to be an actual part of the story, she, for the most part, plays like a device to keep audiences from checking out. Zamata plays the role pretty well; she’s very likable, but the jokes the script gives her aren’t particularly funny.

This obsession marks the closest thing Spree has to a momentum, and while that’s fine, there’s so much empty space. It’s a 40-minute short in a 93-minute movie. That said, its digs at Internet culture are funny if not particularly sharp, similar to how the premise is dark enough to eke out a passive interest in where it’ll end up going. The increase in onscreen activity works well and Benjamin Moses Smith cuts it together well. The individual set pieces manage to entertain as well, but again, there just isn’t enough here.

Instead, one of Spree’s best running gags comes from the comments. Kotlyarenko keeps the viewers’ reactions pouring in at the bottom of the screen to an almost dizzying extent, yet what works the best is how it predicts—and often says—precisely what those in the theater are thinking. It’s flighty and a nice touch. At the end of the day, it’s also a constant reminder of one of the reasons Spree doesn’t work: it tries eliciting enjoyment in the very thing it decries.

Spree is playing in the NEXT section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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