By Bradley Lane
Today, it can seem as though the world is changing at a breakneck pace. The mainstream push for more and more increasingly progressive social change is too difficult to ignore for anyone even remotely tuned into current events. Just months ago, an advertisement for razors sent the internet into a tizzy fit because it communicated ideas that challenged conventional ideals of masculinity. It depicted the negative effects of male to male aggression, ill-advised sexual advances and gender inequality in the workplace. Most of the conversation around the ad centered in on the idea that it was attacking men and traits inherent to those who identify as male. The actual target of the messaging was not male identity as a whole, but rather the consequences that stem from harmful social expectations unfairly put on young boys and men. The idea that the way we have raised men for generations might be outdated, could be hard to swallow for some, but The Art of Self-Defense is specifically designed to help ease that transition in mindset with one of time’s most tested medicine’s, laughter.
Writer and director Riley Sterns had just one feature film to his name before The Art of Self-Defense released. Impressive, considering the uniquely awkward elevator pitch for the film; a lost and constantly emasculated man finds comfort and belonging in a karate dojo that slowly is revealed to be much more than just an instructional karate class, all of which is used to critique unexamined traditional masculinity. It is a film that truly needs to be experienced to be fully understood, which is a big part of how it separates itself from a crowded pool of indie releases.
The tone established by Sterns in the film is fiercely idiosyncratic, despite paying homage to its clearly identifiable predecessors like Taxi Driver, Fight Club and the entirety of Wes Anderson’s filmography. The most striking element to the film is the consistently tactless and often overly explained dialogue from every character in the film. This eccentric means of communication makes for hilarious situations and a great platform to work in some scathing social commentary. By cutting through the pleasantries of day-to-day chit-chat and focusing on the underlying messages we seek to communicate, Sterns illuminates the uniquely performative aspects of masculinity. It pokes fun at the idea of men adhering to, and outwardly expressing a razor-thin set of attitudes so other people can perceive them as a strong man, in order to feel content and comfortable with their own masculinity. It feels like a personal and genuine exploration of what being a man means in a world where heteronormative gender roles have outstayed their welcome.
The Art of Self-Defense despite, and even more, because of its social critique is also viscerally entertaining; after all, it is a movie centered around karate. The movie would be vastly entertaining even told through the lens of a conventional Hollywood picture. The fact it is presented with such personality and thoughtfulness allows The Art of Self-Defense to stand as one of the year’s best films and a cult classic in the making. – 4.5/5 stars