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Sundance 2023: "Getaway Driver" Makes Dustin Nguyen An Art House Star

Stranger relations: Ngyen kidnaps Nghia and gets himself a virtual father in The Accidental Getaway Driver / Photo by Ron Batzdorff, courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Stranger relations: Ngyen kidnaps Nghia and gets himself a virtual father in The Accidental Getaway Driver / Photo by Ron Batzdorff, courtesy of the Sundance Institute

A veteran of music video clips for Halsey and Migos, Sing J. Lee won the Best Director Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival U.S. Drama competition with "The Accidental Getaway Driver." It is easy to see why. The movie offers an immigrant story with Tarantino-like pizzaz and a sorrowful, lyrical undertow. 

Los Angeles Noir, Vietnamese-Style

Long Mã (Hiep Tran Nghia) is an elderly Vietnamese man living in Los Angeles' Little Saigon. He makes a living as a pirate taxi driver with a Toyota Corolla that could easily be committed to the junkyard. The action takes place in pre-Uber times, as one can tell by the old-school cell phones. On a late-night run to the supermarket to buy a single package of instant ramen soup - echoes of "The Big Lebowski" (Joel & Ethan Sean, 1998) reverberate in the scene - he gets a call from an unknown client. Tây (Dustin Nguyen) talks him up into a short ride to his mother's house. When Long pulls over, three men climb into the car: Tây brings two other passengers, Aben (Dali Benssalah) and Eddie (Phi Vu). Soon enough, it becomes clear that this will not be a simple late run. They are a trio of escaped convicts from a nearby jail with a hare-brained plan to flee to Canada. And they need a getaway driver.

The Accidental Getaway Driver first saw the light as a true-crime story by Paul Kix, published in GQ Magazine on May 1, 2017. Lee and co-screenwriter Christopher Chen use the thriller-ready plot to consider an unexplored dimension of the immigrant experience. We are familiar with stories of struggle and cultural integration, but the movie portrays the immigrant as a permanent outsider. It shifts the tone from picaresque crime comedy of escalating complications to soulful family drama, where the family is a makeshift construction that comes as a byproduct of chance - or fatality.

Drive, he said: Nguyen, Nghia, Vu and Benssalah go fast nowhere in The Accidental Getaway Driver / Photo by Ron Batzdorff, courtesy of The Sundance Institute

Drive, he said: Nguyen, Nghia, Vu and Benssalah go fast nowhere in The Accidental Getaway Driver / Photo by Ron Batzdorff, courtesy of The Sundance Institute

Low Budget Film Ingenuity Saves The Day - And The Past

As the fugitives desperately dash for the Canadian border, Long senses he is expendable. Hot-headed Aben, the virtual leader of the group, becomes more hostile and menacing. The hostage finds refuge in his memories, opening a parallel narrative track that brings us up to date on his background—long sent his family to live in the United States while he remained behind in South Vietnam. By the time they reunite, they are in sync with the American way of life, while the patriarch remains set on his traditional mindset. Things come to a breaking point at a dinner party where they host the eldest daughter’s white in-laws, and Long burns bridges with self-righteous fury.

Lee builds these scenes with voice-overs, photographs, and moody shots of an empty house. It is impossible to know if these creative choices come from the budgetary constraints of independent production or if they are aesthetic choices. You can imagine these scenes playing out with a flesh-and-blood cadre of actors, resulting in a richer experience. Perhaps that would be more satisfactory in dramatic terms, but it would also diffuse the focus away from Long. Alas, the dreamlike photography by Michael Fernandez keeps the film from falling prey to limitations. There is a sharp contrast between Long's picturesque reveries and the starkness of the strip malls, shabby hotels, and deserted roads the desperados cross.

The gang splits into two cars after stealing a van. Tây and Long ride together and grow closer. It is a two-way case of Stockholm Syndrome. Lonely men create the chosen family they desperately need. Besides their loneliness, both are incapable of joining American society. Long remains insulated within Little Saigon. Tây's life of crime makes him a permanent outsider. The possibility of getting deported once captured looms large in his mind. He dreads going to a country he does not know. The alienation of the person who does not belong anywhere comes into focus, thanks to Nguyen's star-making role. It may seem strange to say such a thing about a 4-decades-plus veteran of Film and TV, but I dare say it is the first time the actor gets to dig deep into his dramatic chops.

We Are In This Together, Until We Are Not

"The Accidental Getaway Driver" suggests the elusive, insular quality of the immigrant experience in America. You can build a social and geographical space that makes you feel at home. It is not by chance that the largest ethnic groups have their neighborhoods in the bigger cities. In the movie, there are no white characters of consequence. There is the seed of an interesting idea here, exploring how different ethnicities might find common ground in navigating life in a place that never stops seeing them as interlopers.

The three Vietnamese-Americans lie in opposition to Aben, an Arab whose volatile character makes him the actual villain of the story. Lee and Chen write Aben as an outright psychopath, and Bensaalah - who you can also see in Athena (Romain Gavras, 2022) - runs with it over the top. He gets a monologue that could work as an Oscar clip or an acting exercise for an overzealous student. Your mileage may vary upon this histrionic display. I'm conflicted about this narrative choice. Is it not easy to make "the other" into a foe? Would the movie be more interesting if the "bad" characters were Vietnamese, too? Or did the filmmakers pause at the possibility of giving in to negative stereotypes? 

Divide and conquer. There is a rich drama mine in the interplay between minorities, but "The Accidental Getaway Driver" takes the easy way out. Granted, it is a tricky territory to navigate. Spike Lee's classic "Do The Right Thing" (1989) remains the golden standard when contemplating the tension between ethnic groups oscillating between harmony and strife in the shade of a racist order.  

The End of The Road

As pressure mounts, the alliances within the group shift along generational, not necessarily cultural, fault lines. As Aben becomes more of a threat to Long, Tây sides with his newfound father figure. Lin is too young and spineless and comes apart when he catches his family making a plight for his surrender on a newscast. In their brief appearance, you can see his female relatives fall within the spectrum of model minorities, solidly integrated into the middle class. Their tearful appeals for his surrender are like salt in a wound. He knows he will never belong. The inertia drives him to Aben and his pantomime of strength.

As "The Accidental Getaway Driver" careers towards its conclusion, the criminal thriller elements phase out in favor of a sentimental tribute to families lost and found. It is hard to resent this turn of events when it gives Nguyen such a moving portrait of a man coming to terms with the consequences of his choices. Nghia may play the title character, but his performance is overly reactive. The movie belongs to the soulful petty criminal who hitched a ride to nowhere.

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