Documentary filmmakers are often the voice that is never heard; the face that is never seen. They are there – as the genre suggests – to simply document what is going on in front of them. But what if what they capture has a profound and lasting effect on them? Where should they draw the line between passive observer and active participant? Do they wallow in the misery of others for the sake of entertainment?

All of these questions – and more – are posed in Lanie Zipoy’s The Subject. Zipoy blends a number of genres (everything from the stalker thriller to the sociopolitical drama) in her feature length debut.

The ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ opening scene sees Phil Waterhouse (Jason Biggs) receive a threatening phone call. Cut to the title card and you’re suddenly at a point his life six weeks’ prior. Waterhouse is a relatively successful documentary film maker, who is plagued by grief and remorse. His last feature, which made it all the way to Sundance, captured the brutal death of a black teenager on film. Now, as he attempts to assuage his guilt by filming yet another Harlem-set documentary, it’s clear that his past isn’t quite finished with him, yet.

The film feels a little stop-start as it tries to get off the ground. This is possibly due to the number of storylines it attempts to ram into the opening hour. There’s Phil’s new documentary as a plotline; the All About Eve-esque assistant he hires; the opening of his girfriend’s boutique; relationship issues; family dramas; oh, and Phil appears to have acquired a stalker who is filming his every move. And so many of these plotlines are mentioned once then never again. It seems bizarre to have included them all when they don’t really contribute to the main narrative and don’t add much in the way of character development either.

All of this peripheral stuff aside, the film really gets into its stride when flashbacks of Phil’s relationship with murdered teen, Malcolm (Nile Bullock) come into play. Their relationship is tricky at first, as Malcolm tries to act the tough gang member, but when you get to see what unfolded between them, it’s emotional and compelling. Malcolm is lost, lonely and in need of direction – something that perhaps hits too close to home for Phil. The power dynamic between them – Phil as voyeur and Malcolm as subject – also conjures up plenty of allusions to white privilege.

The colour palette used throughout is also interesting. Phil dresses in washed out beiges and creams and his apartment is decorated in similar tones as if to emphasise his depressive state. By stark contrast, Malcolm is filmed in vibrant fuschias and royal blues, against a backdrop of terracotta stairs and brightly hued graffiti.

The dialogue is a bit cringey at times – The Inbetweeners-esque “I want you to fucking fuck me” or “I guess that makes you the head terrorist bitch” being the most knuckle-chewing examples. However, on the whole, Chisa Hutchinson’s script feels credible, particularly as the film works towards its dramatic third act.

It’s in this third act that The Subject really feels like it’s going somewhere. The arrival of Malcolm’s grieving mother, Lesley (Aunjanue Ellis) brings Phil’s guilt flooding back. The tension between them builds and builds until it is almost unbearable to watch. Both of them are emotionally vulnerable and angry, wanting to point the finger of blame at anyone but themselves. They both feel like they need answers and absolution. Their scenes together are brilliantly acted. Emotions are high but it never feels false or forced; the tight close ups allowing the actors to bare all. It is strange but wonderful to watch Biggs commit so perfectly to an extremely dramatic role.

Had this been a short film comprising solely of the last third of the feature length movie, you probably would have felt more engaged and drawn in. The last thirty minutes or so really are the best thing about this film. It’s well acted and it feels like there is a clear ‘A to B’ with the narrative. Sadly, there are far too many sub-plots – everything from a thieving niece to Phil’s brush with infidelity – and it feels a bit all over the place.

The Subject is an ambitious debut that, due to cramming too much is, is as flawed as its central character. At the heart of it all are some really interesting messages and questions. They just get a little lost along the way.

Rating: ½

The Subject in theatres and on VOD, day & date release beginning on October 22, 2021 across North America.