There are enjoyable Hollywood satires with a mean streak like Swimming with Sharks and What Just Happened? but The Mentor falls short. Writer and director Moez Solis aims to satirise the trials and tribulations of indie filmmaking, but his spin on Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation is too sour.
The Mentor starts out promising with some nice travelling exterior shots and a punchy score by Elton Bradman and Chris Falanagan. Our protagonist Nilah (Brandi Nicole Payne) introduces herself in an engaging voice over monologue. Her narration is very well-written, putting the audience in the mind of an ambitious girl with a feverish drive to become a film-maker. Payne’s performance is stellar; she captures the quiet ferocity of Nilah’s ambition that drives the film’s kooky twist ending.
Solis uses the character of Nilah to comment on how difficult it is to break into the film industry, a place where gatekeeping and lack of finances keeps great artists from making their work. In desperate need of guidance in navigating such an inaccessible field, Nilah reaches out to busy working film-maker, Claire Adams (Liz Sklar, giving a confident performance), who is on her way to an awards show. After Nilah saves her from getting hit by a car, Claire reluctantly agrees and gives her very blunt feedback about her “derivative” script. According to Claire, only dilettantes, not real artists, adhere to traditional narratives, a three-act structure, and character arcs. Solis does right by putting two female filmmakers (and one a woman of colour) as the leads—we’ve seen enough stories about male directors—and Payne and Sklar’s performances are the absolute highlight of The Mentor.
Claire and Nilah’s mentoring session is cut short when they’re kidnapped by a desperate group of indie filmmakers who want to hold Claire hostage in exchange for a production budget. The kidnappers wear bird masks and address themselves as Mr. Emu, Mrs. Hawk, Mr. Raven, etc.—a metaphor for producers as vultures who incessantly disrupt the creative team’s artistic process. The idea is amusing, but it feels lacklustre due to the ensemble’s exaggerated performances.
Solis uses Claire’s character to advocate for gritty guerilla filmmaking. She models herself after Werner Herzog, someone who foregoes all morals for the sake of making art. Claire is the kind of director who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty— she picks locks, shoots without permits, and steals in order to get the right shot. Solis cheekily highlights the hypocrisy of an industry that leaves artistic visionaries like Claire broke and in debt and rewards those who direct “soul-sucking” genre pictures. These conversations about ethical filmmaking, lack of access and support for indie creatives, the extravagance and over-abundance of blockbusters, and spectacle versus realism are all worth having, but if Solis posed them with more subtlety, it would have made a stronger impact. The film’s strange, absurdist tone is more head-scratching than thought-provoking.
The entire screenplay is oversaturated with inside jokes about working behind the scenes, Herzog references, and cinema studies jargon, demonstrating Solis’ adept knowledge of moviemaking. What is so frustrating about The Mentor is that Solis raises some significant questions and has an impressive understanding of cinema, but the execution is far too heavy-handed and confusing, with a touch of bitterness. Solis clearly has an axe to grind, and The Mentor is his way of letting out his frustrations about film-making. The Mentor has compelling lead performances and an inventive story, but unfortunately Solis blunts his insightful perspective and strong, creative vision with anger and loquaciousness.
The Mentor is available on VOD now
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.