Like so many young performers, Sydney Sweeney proved that she was a star before she could get the chance to prove that she was a well-rounded actor. Her name-making gigs as a vindictive, canonically gorgeous high schooler on TV’s “Euphoria,” a vindictive, canonically gorgeous college sophomore on “The White Lotus,” and a vindictive, canonically gorgeous recent grad in the “The Voyeurs” all required her to channel an innate charisma toward variations on a broadly consistent type, her abilities yet to be stretched far enough to chart their full potential. She’s demonstrated a canniness in preempting and subverting audience expectations, heretofore at her best in roles that invite, challenge, and occasionally punish the stares part and parcel to her conspicuous good looks. But up to this point in her career, it’s been mostly guesswork to discern where raw screen presence stops and the disciplined work of a thespian begins.
Sweeney’s filmography was waiting for a stringent formalist exercise like “Reality,” in which she recreates one fateful afternoon in the life of Reality Winner, the NSA translator imprisoned for leaking a document that revealed her employer’s withholding of information about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Tina Satter’s film (adapted from her own play, “Is This A Room”) feeds the transcript of Winner’s interrogation by a pair of FBI agents through the mouths of the cast as dialogue, faithful to every little stammer and filler word not redacted by a black box. As Winner gradually grasps the grim gravity of her circumstances, Sweeney likewise has nowhere to hide, made under with a chin zit and a head full of flyaways for the sort of stripped-down character piece that lives or dies on the skills of its lead. She rises to the task with a self-assured display of surpassing focus and control that earns an already-acclaimed talent a whole new set of laudatory adjectives, including “layered,” “understated,” and “complex.”
The film posits the hostile apprehension of Winner, sentenced despite having been arrested without her Miranda rights, as a cautionary tale about governmental surveillance and overreach. The last shot before the opening title card is that of an officer knocking at a car window, a charged dynamic of imbalanced power and implied violence that sets the tension for a rigorously lifelike depiction of talking to law enforcement. Good cop Garrick (Josh Hamilton, looking like a backyard BBQ dad in a dorky button-down and khakis) and bad cop Taylor (Marchánt Davis, muscles bulging beneath his Under Armour polo) speak to Winner with a studied faux-calm they abruptly drop when she makes a sudden move to open a door or use her phone. She matches them with the nervous playacted innocence of the guilty; her go-to thin-lipped shrug repurposed as a poker face. Everyone’s trying to assert their command over the situation — watch how Davis flexes his forearms as a show of dominance while he asks Winner her power-lifting personal best — without alerting the others of how much they know until a cards-on-the-table turning point veers into a surreal aesthetic with vague utility.
Satter displays shrewder judgment for a first-time filmmaker than most, the only clanging wrong note struck in the final minute’s overbearing score and heavy-handed epigram quotation. She comes by her symbols honestly (Winner’s frightened, trapped dog and cat figure into the transcript, though a snail laying it on a little thick doesn’t), and her experience with stage blocking translates to crafty, claustrophobic compositions that box Winner into her home’s barren spare room requisitioned by the FBI as a holding cell. “I’m not too big on furniture,” she explains, subtle strokes of awkward comedy being one way to keep an eighty-three-minute conversation lively and tonally varied.
Ultimately, it’s Sweeney’s show, and she excels in locating small crannies of tacit detail within these offhanded lines. Upon perusing the profile on the feds’ search warrant, she uncomfortably jokes, “125 pounds? You guys flatter me.” With her manner’s shift to a slight stiffness, she conveys this self-deprecation reflex as an ingrained defense mechanism that doubles as an elegantly unstated link to her subject’s bulimia. That her upbringing in rural Idaho has already raised red flags for scorekeepers of the problematic testifies to the amateur auto mechanic’s distinctness from her privilege-pampered peers on the starlet circuit; in this case, that’s an X-factor equipping her to credibly embody the owner of a pink AR-15 without making it sound like a punch line about middle America.
The theatre has traditionally separated the substantive artistes from the pretty faces adept at existing before the camera. So it’s apropos that a Broadway import would give Sweeney an exigent workout for the nuts and bolts of her technique. One look at her confirms that she was always destined for fame, but with this mettle-testing high point to her C.V., she demonstrates why she deserves all that’s come to her thus far — and all that undoubtedly will. [B+]