It’s a fine line between civilization and fleeing in the woods at night like an animal—or so you can imagine the main character of 'Tyrel', an expertly ratcheted indie comedy, must be thinking in between gulps of air. First of all, his name is actually Tyler and, as played by Jason Mitchell ('Mudbound'), he’s got the soft-spoken likability of your typical thirtyish urban chef. Escaping some domestic drama with his girlfriend’s mentally failing mother, he opts to leave the city and drive upstate to the Catskills with his buddy John (Christopher Abbott) for a weekend of drunken shenanigans with a group of strangers at a secluded house. Tyler, though, isn’t expecting every other guest to be white and his subsequent racial alienation (it begins with them getting his name wrong) flares from mild awkwardness to downright terror.
It won’t take the wobbly, vaguely menacing presence of Caleb Landry Jones to put you in mind of 'Get Out', though that convenient bit of casting is here if you want it. Rather, writer-director Sebastián Silva ('The Maid'), working guerrilla-style in a single location with a group of actor friends, is onto something that might even be more sophisticated than Jordan Peele’s horror blockbuster, certainly more realistic. In 'Tyrel', the fear is self-generated: These bros aren’t evil so much as soused and unhinged. But like paranoid Tyler himself, we go to that worst-case scenario and Silva has a blast emphasising every bit of microaggressive whiteness on display, from their constant flow of spiked Irish coffees to a hit parade of whiny R.E.M. songs. (Watching Mitchell try to share in their cavorting enthusiasm over 'Stand' is excruciating comic gold.)
The subtle pleasure of watching 'Tyrel' comes from raising an eyebrow at every inferred (implied?) slight; even when the movie descends into drunken wrestling in the living room, you wince not at the potential for disaster so much as Tyler – sweaty and a touch too exuberant – unwittingly falling into stereotypes. A strange, almost dreamlike oasis exists outside the house on a nearby piece of property where 'The Handmaid's Tale''s Ann Dowd owns one magnificently tense scene. But mainly, we're in close quarters at a moment when inhibitions appear to be loosening (it’s also the weekend of Donald Trump’s inauguration, a lunge for sociopolitical frisson that never quite pays off). 'See, you’re not the only black guy,' says a debauched Michael Cera, showing up at the party in a dark wetsuit. Undeniably, the tension lifts ever so slightly, but those manic laughs aren't comforting.