Sydney Sweeney Reality review

Sydney Sweeney is incredible in Reality

3.5 out of 5 stars

On June 3, 2017, 25-year-old Reality Winner returns from running errands to find two FBI agents waiting outside her home in Augusta, Georgia. They have a search warrant for her house and want to question her about how she potentially mishandled classified documents. Reality is an air-force veteran working as a translator for Pluribus International Corporation, a small firm doing contracts for the NSA. Winner was accused of leaking information about Russian interference in the 2016 election to The Intercept. 

Working with Winner, who was under house arrest at the time, and using a transcript of the interrogation, New York playwright Tina Satter created a stage production called This Is a Room based on the real-time events of that day. Satter has since adapted her play for cinema, making her feature debut with Reality, starring Sydney Sweeney in the lead role, at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year.

Reality takes place almost entirely in real-time. The film begins as Reality returns home from running some errands. The FBI is already waiting. The film’s scope underlines the wordplay with Reality’s name and what’s unfolding, often breaking away from the diegesis to show on screen the transcript of the discussions and/or audio amplitudes of a recording. Much of the discussion, particularly in the early half, is mundane, vague and overly familiar. The FBI agents smile slightly too wide, make self-deprecating jokes and chat about cross-fit. They worry about Reality’s dog because they’re all “dog people.” 

Much of the film takes place in a backroom of the house that acts as a storage space for her dog’s crate. She doesn’t like spending time in that space, but it’s the house’s only room with any sense of privacy. Now pressed against a wall, the interrogation begins in earnest. 

Whether or not you know the story of Reality Winner, the film has an underlying discomfort, a tension rooted in deception (not Reality’s, mind you) and evasiveness. The film’s style underlines the artifice of the endeavour. This is real but not real. Sydney Sweeney’s searching, analytical gaze — acting as an audience surrogate — tries to make sense of what’s happening. Though we will later ascertain that she is well aware of why the FBI is knocking at her door, searching through her devices, questioning her about her motives and actions, they’re the ones who come across as “bad actors” within a country that has lost its way. They might argue they’re just “doing their jobs,” but at what cost?

Reality Sydney Sweeney
Sydney Sweeney in Reality

The performances by Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis are eerie. They affect calm, “we’re just pals doing our job” energy with strained discomfort. From the onset, they try to buddy up with Reality and put her at ease, but their performance only creates more tension. It doesn’t matter that they’re smiling — they’re about to blow up Reality’s life, and they know it. Reality knows it, too. They all play along in this game, though, this polite interrogation, filled with twists and turns. 

Sweeney gives a spectacular performance as Reality Winner. She’s restrained, much of her work happening through her eyes. We sense her searching for ways out. Her rage, though buried deep below the surface, is also palpable. Winner knew what she was doing. Though the FBI agents try to paint her anger as misplaced career frustration, it clearly goes even deeper. Winner’s faith in her country was collapsing. 

If Reality falters as a film, it’s partly due to the confines of the project. The fly-on-the-wall style leaves little room for editorializing one way or another. As the film goes on, we encounter more and more elements of the transcript that have been censored, which the film recreates through glitches. Ironically, much of what was excised by the official powers have since become common knowledge due to the prosecution of Winner. The “secrets” are public domain, reported in publications across the world at large.

The film views Winner’s whistleblowing as an act of heroism. It’s hard to argue that point. But the film can’t quite nail the landing, though it tries to capture how little Winner’s leak changed the course of the discussion and how little impact it made. The deep sense of hopelessness that facts don’t matter wasn’t quite nailed home. In particular, Reality is a film that feels completely undercut by a particularly terrible choice of closing music, which negates much of the film’s tension and political power. 

As it stands, Reality is a tense thriller that captures a sliver of the deep unease that has dominated the American political landscape for the past 10 years. It suggests a free-fall country, ultimately void of morals or direction. The movie is an exceptional showcase for Sweeney, who most viewers only know from her role in Euphoria. It’s a tour-de-force performance grounded in naturalism and paranoid thrillers of the past. ■

Sydney Sweeney in Reality (directed by Tina Satter)

Reality is now streaming on Crave.

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