Set during a pandemic but shot before COVID, Kerry Mondragon’s feature debut Tyger Tyger is an ambitious fantasy drama that tries to explore how powerfully liberating connection can be in times of hardship, but choppy filmmaking undercuts its intended emotional impact. Mondragon wants to investigate the psychological impact a pandemic has on those who feel lost, but disappointingly his camera struggles to reveal anything significant or deep about the cast of characters. Tyger Tyger’s setting is interesting, but our journey through it rarely is.

Our two leads cross paths while Blake (Sam Quartin) is robbing a pharmacy that drug-addict Luke (Dylan Sprouse) is trying to get medication at. They share a brief moment of connection, and soon Luke finds himself kidnapped by Blake and her mute friend Bobby (Nekhebet Kum Juch). He’s to aid them in their mission of distributing the stolen, life-saving medicine to Free City, an off-the-grid, self-sustaining community. It’s here that most of the action unfolds, a place populated by outcasts and squatters, shot on location at Slab City, California with its real-life occupants. A cast of non-professional actors guide Blake, Luke and Bobby through a series of ruminations on love and purpose whilst they immerse themselves in an alternative way of life, but the detached, unfocused style of filmmaking means the story becomes difficult to follow and even more difficult to care about.

Tyger Tyger’s main flaw is in its direction. Scenes are often devoid of focus or urgency, meaning the performances suffer and you’re never gripped by the story’s drama. The recent success of Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland shows that gently and naturalistically dramatizing the lives of people living on the fringes of society is a valid and compelling filmmaking approach, but Mondragon lacks Zhao’s delicate directorial skills for drawing out heart-wrenching, emotive performances. 

It’s likely a lot of Tyger Tyger’s dialogue was improvised, but rather than making the characters feel like they’re naturally articulating their thoughts, it mainly sounds like the actors have forgotten their lines. This lack of performative polish is understandable in the ensemble of non-professional actors, but hearing Dylan Sprouse – who’s been acting since he was a child – splutter over his exclamations is increasingly frustrating. 

That being said, a stellar performance isn’t necessary to become emotionally attached to a person. There just has to be something dynamic about a person, something we can identify as a human characteristic that makes us care about what actions they take. While Tyger Tyger has a mixed bag of supporting characters, it would be unfair to say none of them are engaging. A stand-out is Emerald (Thea Sofie Loch Næss) who has a warm, sparkling energy that holds your attention whenever she’s on-screen. But others feel more half-baked and flimsy. The double-crossing Dr. Joe (Craig Stark) seemingly has had every weird and wacky instinct encouraged, and although it makes him suitably off-the-wall, it’s an effect that gets tired fast and stops him from being appropriately intimidating. Overall, the lack of universal depth in the Free City dwellers means we don’t get the compelling sense of community needed to justify the long stretches of quiet we spend there. 

What engagement we have is in no small part down to Sam Quartin’s lead performance. She makes Blake feel grounded and driven in a way that the rest of the characters aren’t. There’s a quiet intensity to her as we see her become steadily more comfortable in the Free City lifestyle, and watching her relationship with Luke build from its intense beginnings to a more affectionate equilibrium is endearing. Blake is an interesting moral centre, she clearly sees herself as better than Luke (which is strange seeing as she kidnapped him), but hearing his insights into why she selflessly steals makes her reconsider her assumptions about him. But moments like these are infrequent, and Quartin’s performance is left wanting a proper emotional arc.

A dynamic and blistering soundtrack by composer Daniele Luppi helps to bolster the emotion of several scenes, but it can’t distract from the poorly plotted story that lacks the structure to keep us engaged throughout Tyger Tyger’s punishingly minimalist story. Even before a messy final act clumsily resolves the film’s fantasy elements, it’s a struggle to keep up with the mumbled dialogue and sudden changes in characterisation littering the film. The narrative, much like the dialogue, often feels improvised. 

It’s ultimately a letdown that Tyger Tyger fails to be compelling. Mondragon clearly finds Free City’s way of life fascinating, and the idea of finding salvation there in a turbulent world isn’t a bad idea for a film. But while it’s possible to feel a twinge of desire to lose yourself in this lawless community, Tyger Tyger fumbles all potential interest with a terminally unfocused story.

Rating: ★★

Gravitas Ventures is releasing Tyger Tyger in select theaters, drive-ins, digital/VOD on February 26, 2021.