Following a day in the life of a medical transport driver, Kirill Mikhanovsky’s Give Me Liberty is a portrait of chaos—specifically, how small, coinciding crises pile atop each other to create a manic web of stress. Vic (Chris Galust) has to drive a coterie of people with disabilities to their various appointments around Milwaukee, but that job amounts to just one thing on his overstuffed plate. He also has to prepare his senile Russian grandfather, who almost burns down their shared apartment by cooking chicken, for the mid-afternoon funeral he and a group of dysfunctional relatives plan to attend. When their shuttle flakes, they pressure Vic into shepherding them to the funeral alongside his clients. On top of that, many of the roads are closed for a protest in the aftermath of a police shooting, which further complicates Vic’s ability to maneuver around the city. Perpetually late and overtaxed, not to mention the subject of near-constant complaints from everyone in his immediate sphere, Vic frequently yells his de facto catchphrase into the dispatch radio: “I’ll be there in five, 10 minutes tops!”
This slow burn, medium-stakes disorder, filtered through a frosty Midwestern environment that threatens to freeze even former residents of the Soviet bloc, becomes Give Me Liberty’s modus operandi. Mikhanovsky, who cowrote the script with playwright Alice Austen, applies this pressure-cooker tone to a visually and narratively dynamic framework. Claustrophobic, handheld camerawork captures the urgency of Vic’s hustle in his van and out in the world. Almost every scene has built-in comedic and dramatic tension because of various small problems that need to be solved, whether it’s the process of loading and unloading wheelchair users or quelling the braying concerns of elderly, impatient Russian émigrés. Galust, in an impressive acting debut, commands audience sympathy on the basis of his character’s well-earned frustration, not to mention his determination to help anyone who crosses his path. However, Mikhanovsky and Austen notably contrast Vic’s exasperated disposition with the physical or mental difficulties of his clients with disabilities, most of whom adopt halfway cheery demeanors even when their routines are uprooted by factors beyond their control.
Give Me Liberty’s freewheeling, shambolic structure, mirrored by Vic’s expansive driving route, provides adequate space for Mikhanovsky and Austen to craft a disparate, diverse American community, one defined by marginalized peoples. They make room for Tracy (Lauren “Lolo” Spencer), a young black woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, whose own interpersonal struggles converge with Vic’s in curious ways, and Dima (Maksim Stoyanov), a gregarious Russian cousin whose ability to charm anyone helps them to overcome various obstacles. As in any worthwhile “road movie,” the digressions serve broader goals. Tender character moments, like a lovely sequence at a talent show for people with mentally disabilities or an improvised Russian wake, highlight Mikhanovsky and Austen’s generous worldview, a palpable belief that a spotlight should be shared rather than hogged. Dueling scenes at Vic’s mother’s cramped apartment and Tracy’s family home showcase how large families from different backgrounds share similar anxieties about the need for the next generation to escape their forbearers’ plight. Omnipresent anxiety remains the great unifier of the modern American experience, Mikhanovsky and Austen argue, but the ways it manifests demonstrate crucial differences that should be celebrated instead of ignored.
Give Me Liberty wouldn’t feel like such an understated triumph if it exclusively focused on the chaos engulfing its subjects. Rather, it illustrates how kindness trickles through an infrastructure of disarray. In fact, Give Me Liberty functions as one of the most resonant portrayals of allyship, achieved through actual deeds instead of empty gestures. Vic instinctually understands that many people literally depend on him everyday, and Mikhanovsky and Austen frequently convey the sheer nobility of driving people places they couldn’t otherwise get to themselves. This belief extends to the film’s production as well, which features a non-professional cast and a community of real people with disabilities, who are depicted with matter-of-fact respect instead of pious pity. Plus, Give Me Liberty indirectly captures a fractured national mood better than didactic agitprop ever could, e.g., a police protest becoming an arena for exorcising oppression and an impromptu communal gathering, with “Our streets!” doubling as an affirmation that black and immigrant lives do matter, even if it’s for different reasons. Mikhanovsky and Austen even allow for genuine budding romance to filter through the struggle, with love operating as a balm for beleaguered souls.
Things get a little too tidy in the final act—a mildly frustrating development for such a purposefully messy film, though it’s a fine tradeoff for Give Me Liberty’s numerous pleasures. “No good deed goes unpunished,” as the saying goes, but Mikhanovsky and Austen assert that life’s unfairness is merely a given, and that it shouldn’t hinder anyone from appreciating its beauty. An idealistic notion, perhaps, especially for the times, but idealism rarely comes in such a casual, pragmatic mold. After all, extending one’s hand to help another shouldn’t be a grand gesture. It should be a way of life.