This image released by HBO shows Sydney Sweeney in a scene from "Reality." (Lily Olsen/HBO Max via AP)
“Reality,” a new movie starring Sydney Sweeney, is largely set in one empty room. There is nothing on the walls. There are no chairs or rugs, just a stark and ugly room in a nondescript rental property in a downtrodden neighborhood. Its script is as minimalistic — lifted directly from the transcript of one long conversation between two FBI agents and a young woman they suspect has leaked classified documents. The dialogue has all the ums and ahs, botched sentences and awkward small talk one might expect from actual human beings, not slickly intelligent Aaron Sorkin creations. And it’s one of the most tense and exciting films of the year.
It’s based on the actual FBI interrogation of the unbelievably named Reality Winner, a former Air Force translator who worked as a contractor at a National Security Agency office in Augusta, Georgia. One day in May 2017, she printed a classified report, tucked it into her pantyhose, walked out of the office and mailed it to an online news outlet. The next month, the FBI was at her door to interrogate her. The film starts as she pulls up into her driveway, an agent knocks on her car window and starts the recording on his handheld device.
The film comes from Tina Satter, a noted playwright who first conceived of this idea for the stage. The show, called “Is This a Room,” was acclaimed in its off-Broadway run and the film version, which debuted at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year and is currently streaming on Max, is her directorial debut. It’s easy and lazy to ding a movie for being too much like a play, as though there is some bright line of demarcation between the formats aside from how audiences see them. But the point is that Satter has, in adapting “Reality” for the screen, turned limitations into opportunities. The smallness of the room starts to feel suffocating, especially as the questions get more specific and accusatory.
There is a dread to the whole endeavor from the first shot, even if you don’t remember how this story played out in the news. Though it takes some time for Agent Taylor (Marchánt Davis) and Agent Garrick (Josh Hamilton) to get to the real questions, the real reason why they’re there, the small stresses and indignities start to build. Reality (Sweeney) has come home with a car full of groceries. She has a cat in the house and a dog, a rescue who doesn’t like men. Her life has been put on pause and there’s nothing she can do about it. The agents tell her they have a search warrant for her home and her car and promptly tape off her modest yard with “crime scene” ribbon, take her phone and force her to stay outside as they search. She’s worried about the perishables, her cat escaping through the open door and her dog scaring people. Meanwhile, one of the agents is asking about her CrossFit routine and her life as a single person in Augusta.
Reality, wearing jean shorts and sneakers, does not seem aware that she has the right to not answer their questions and has the right to an attorney — and the agents certainly aren’t offering this information either. Instead, she is deferential and even helpful to these uninvited strangers, as though being nice might help things. Any woman or member of a marginalized group can surely relate.
Much credit goes to the actors. Hamilton walks a very delicate line in his performance. He looks like an innocuous IT guy and seems friendly enough, but his questions, even the smallest ones, feel double edged. Small talk has never been so stressful. Davis meanwhile keeps Reality on edge with small displays of power and authority, like now allowing her to touch her phone. But the show belongs to Sweeney, whose range continues to astonish — from “Euphoria” to “The White Lotus” and now this. She draws you in and you feel her stress and panic escalate.
It’s a true triumph of storytelling and performance and a reminder that films don’t need to be flashy or big to be great.
“Reality,” a Max release currently streaming, is rated TV-MA. Running time: 83 minutes. Three stars out of four.
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