Sometimes it’s valuable to have zero expectations going into a movie. For Downsizing, the near future technological satire from writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) has been producing lackluster critical response since its festival season debuts. In a time when humans can be shrunk to five inches tall to reduce their impact on the environment, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) finds unexpected consequences when his wife backs out of joining him on their minimalism trip. Taking aim at wealth disparity, the natural selfishness in people, and materialism, the film traipses after a few too many topics but maintains an intriguing premise that doesn’t drag. More two movies in one, Downsizing was a quiet surprise for the end of the year.
I’m not always wild for Payne’s films. Both The Descendants and Nebraska missed the mark for me even with the acclaim backing them. For Downsizing, a repetitious story has a bit too much world building to be an enthusiastic ride, but the slow crawl and numerous time jumps aside, the film leads the viewer through mega mansions for the previous middle class, the ghetto for the unfortunate small unable to enter the society with a silver spoon, and ventures into the origins of the project with middling humor but exceptional drive. Matt Damon lacks much use in the story. He hits the same pitfalls over and over. The story seems to be headed for banality until we meet Ngoc Lan Tran (Golden Globe nominee Hong Chau) as a Vietnamese political dissident forced into the small world who has lost a leg in her refugee escape from prison. Tying up Paul in her quest to save the unfortunate of their society, Chau exudes enough hope and desire to fill her own film. Engaging with her own disability, the even worse state of others, and endless gratitude for what she has–rather than what has been lost–creates one of the most layered performances of this year. Each time a plot point reoccurs, she plays an entirely separate response. Learning she will be finally visitng the original small colony, her joy breaks your heart and reconstructs a stronger one. She has so much vitality when she should by all rights be bitter, but Chau presents a woman refusing to marginalize her goals for survival. She deserves better than Paul.
A few laughs aside, the film is more subject than substance. The film creates a cute world, filled with the best things at the smallest measurements. Roses are valued like fine wine; militarization is used as population control and as a profit booster. No one seems to keep an eye on the environmental goals of the project’s origins. The path for what Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (co-winner for Sideways) aimed to deliver had the promise of Her but an execution living off of quirk. Thank goodness for Chau; her performance was a saving grace and deserving of the awards attention she’s garnered. Asian actors have such little clout in American cinema; thank goodness at least Crazy Rich Asians will raise the demographic a bit later this year. There’s a vibrant culture that is rarely examined in the movie theater. Here’s to hoping this acclaim might spread a bit wider.