"Give Me Liberty," Kirill Mikhanovsky's wonderful second feature, unfolds over an especially fraught day in wintry Wisconsin. It features a large ensemble of largely nonprofessional actors, many of whom call upon their own real-life experience. Several of the actors are members of Milwaukee's Russian immigrant community; others are regulars at the city's Eisenhower Center, a vocational training program for people with disabilities.
With its rough-hewn realism and its unglamorous, careworn faces, Mikhanovsky's film is what you might call a "small movie," but this remarkably sustained juggling act might be one of the bigger movies you'll see this year.
The movie's effectiveness is predicated on some ingenious tricks with proportion and scale. Before the end you'll be surprised at how much can happen in a single day, or in less than two hours of screen time: a funeral, a talent show, an apartment fire, a political protest. You may also be surprised at how many people can fit inside a medical transport van, the crowded, cavernous vehicle that keeps this narrative on the move.
Mikhanovsky (who wrote the screenplay with Alice Austen) drove just such a van as a young man himself, shortly after he moved with his family from Moscow to Milwaukee in 1993. His stand-in here is Vic (a beautifully restrained Chris Galust), a much-put-upon young Russian American who's having a difficult morning even before he gets behind the wheel. Vic races about trying to keep his grandfather (Arkady Basin) from destroying their shared apartment while also getting him ready for the memorial service of an old friend, Lilya.
Within minutes Vic is wheeling one of his regular passengers, a man who is diabetic and visually impaired, down a hall and into the van. So far, so normal, but as he barrels over pothole-riddled roads, Vic finds that several of his usual routes have been blocked off due to organized protests in response to a police shooting in a black neighborhood.
Vic also learns that the vehicle that was supposed to transport his grandfather and his fellow mourners to the funeral never showed up. Good, helpful kid that he is, he lets them all pile into his van, putting him and his regular passengers even more behind schedule. Among the mourners is a boisterous Russian boxer named Dima (Maksim Stoyanov), the one character who, no matter how chaotic things get — and they get pretty chaotic — is delighted simply to be there.
The breathless, one-damned-thing-after-another momentum of the story is all the more impressive for its lack of strain. Shot with a swerving handheld camera by cinematographer Wyatt Garfield, "Give Me Liberty" is a full-blown farce on wheels, a master class in controlled, escalating chaos. It is also a heady and rambunctious state-of-the-union address, a movie in which a crowded, noisy van becomes a microcosm of a divided city and perhaps even a divided nation.
"Give Me Liberty" is remarkable not just for its authenticity but for the way it serves up that authenticity sans self-congratulation. There are no showboating gestures here, only a bone-deep commitment to showing us the lives of individuals often relegated to the cinematic sidelines, to the extent that the movies even notice them all.