[Slamdance 2023] STARRING JERRY AS HIMSELF -- A Brilliant Blurring of the Lines Between Truth and Fiction
Review by Sean Boelman
The Slamdance Film Festival is known as a launching pad for films that bust the confines of conventions, and Law Chen’s Starring Jerry as Himself is certainly pretty unique. Telling a quaint story with an epic sense of scale, this is one of the most innovative independent documentaries in recent memory.
The movie follows a family whose immigrant father, a retired Florida man, believes he was recruited by the Chinese police to be an undercover agent. It’s very much a “Florida Man” story — a tale that’s downright bizarre and yet just enough within the realm of reason to be believable.
Reminiscent of Dick Johnson is Dead in a way, the film blends elements of truth and fiction in a way that the lines of what it means to be a documentary. However, this approach is absolutely perfect for this story given that it is all about fantasy and losing one’s grip on reality. It also gives the movie an awesome, action-packed pace that few documentaries manage to really succeed in.
This is a heavily independent production, meaning that the re-enactments don’t quite have the same level of production value as some bigger-budget documentaries, but the vision is strong with this one. They make the most of what they have, managing to create an immersive world representing Jerry’s mind.
There’s certainly an aspect of tongue-in-cheek humor to the film as the audience is cued into the fact that much of what is being shown on screen is not reality. At times, it can start to be a bit concerning — as it almost comes across as the audience laughing at Jerry — but Jerry is so lovable that it avoids this.
That being said, the movie still has a great deal of empathy for its subject. Chen clearly understands the absurdity of the situation he has been tasked with documenting, but he also recognizes the tragedy at its core. It’s stranger-than-fiction, but this is also somebody’s life who was completely devastated.
If the film does mess anything up, it is not taking a hard enough stance against the people who victimized the eponymous retiree. On-screen text at the end of the movie reminds viewers that scams like these take thousands of elderly people as their prey every year and have the potential to ruin lives. But throughout the film, it doesn’t feel as if these stakes are adequately communicated.
Starring Jerry as Himself is an impressive work of documentary filmmaking, blending nonfiction and fantasy in a thoroughly effective way. Audiences will absolutely fall in love with Jerry Hsu and be captivated by his insane story.
Starring Jerry as Himself is playing as part of the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival, which runs in-person in Park City, UT from January 20-26 and online from January 23-29.