What would you do for a habanero-orange compact sport utility vehicle? Blowing as many balloons as possible in one minute seems like an easy enough task, but what about fetching a human earlobe? These are the questions at the heart of “Stanleyville,” or at least they seem to be. In reality, director Maxwell McCabe-Lokos’ debut feature uses the bizarre “platinum-level exclusive contest” at its center as a metaphor for self-actualization — even if achieving it requires more than a little self-destruction along the way. With a firm commitment to its alluringly offbeat premise and a grounding lead performance from Susanne Wuest, this indie oddity is an enjoyable descent into the absurd despite an apparent lack of interest in answering most of the questions it raises.
If a bird colliding with a window in the opening moments isn’t enough to suggest that something strange is afoot, the fact that “The Lord of the Flies” can be seen on a television in the very next scene ought to do the trick. We know without hearing Maria (Wuest) say a word that any emotional connection she once felt to either her job or her husband and daughter is now severed, and so it’s little surprise when she gives her undivided attention to the strange man who walks up to her in public (Julian Richings) and starts talking about mind-body articulation. It’s the kind of interaction most of us dread, but Maria appears to have been waiting for it: This is it, you can feel her thinking. I’m ready.
“Research data shows that everything you have done in your life has led to this moment, and the next moment, and the moment that follows into the end,” the man calling himself Homunculus explains as part of his pitch. Far from skeptical, Maria’s utterly enthralled — so much so, in fact, that she doesn’t even care about the SUV she’ll take home if she wins this mysterious competition. With nary a word to her family, she immediately absconds to the drab building where her date with destiny is to take place.
Wuest, whose previous credits include “Goodnight Mommy” and “Sunset,” anchors the proceedings with a stiff upper lip. The film has an almost voyeuristic quality to it, as though you’re watching a closed-circuit feed of a reality show where the rules meant to keep participants safe are mere suggestions, and she’s the most likely to actually follow them. If she’s the Ralph in this take on “Lord of the Flies,” though, it’s impossible not to wonder who the Piggy is — and whether he or she will meet a similar fate.
Though closer to the bizarre silliness of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Chevalier” than it is to the life-and-death stakes of “Squid Game,” there’s still a sinister undercurrent to the competition. Divided into eight rounds, it consists of seemingly innocuous games like composing and performing a national anthem for the entire world and arranging the random contents of a cardboard box in the proper order. Some rounds last a minute, others go on for 13 hours. Maria is up against four others, all of whom are as confused about the nature of the contest as she is, but none of whom are in it for the same reason she is: personal transcendence. She comes close to achieving that while performing her anthem, which she hums as the apparent lyrics appear onscreen: “Granted that I know little of my real self, still, I am the best evidence of myself.”
Looking up that zenlike quotation will bring up Sir Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh-American explorer best known for a much more famous line: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Stanley, who actually found what he was looking for on that and other expeditions, would appear to be the film’s namesake — and a clue as to what it aims to achieve beyond creating a pervasively weird atmosphere. It’s no grand revelation that aimless people searching for meaning will seek it out in questionable places, but McCabe-Lokos’ exploration of that ever-timely feeling suggests that it may not be out of reach — even if we don’t find it where we thought we would.
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