“Starring Jerry as Himself” – Review (Slamdance 2023)

“A family documents how their immigrant father Jerry, a recently divorced and retired Florida man, was recruited by the Chinese police to be an undercover agent, only to discover a darker truth.”

I don’t usually look for documentaries when I’m on my off time. This is kind of silly to admit but every documentary that I watched is so devastating personally, regardless of how good it might be, I just don’t bother. Starring Jerry as Himself is no exception. It’s an unblinking portrait of a man who late in his life finds himself in one of the worst predicaments one can find at that age.

Starring Jerry as Himself is presented to us in a hybrid of a docu-drama, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. It’s extremely convincing, keeping me on my toes though the runtime, always questioning myself what was real or fake. Jerry Tsu, our outstanding protagonist, has a heart of gold, mirrored by sadness as his children are making ends meet and even dealing with his ex-wife, an extravagant human being who takes life head on compared to Jerry’s low-key approach. She’s so much fun to watch when she shows up with her “Real Housewives”-esque wardrobe and her bombastic attitude of saying stuff first and thinking about it later. Her honesty is as brazen as it is thoughtful. Sure, Jerry had dreams of becoming a filmmaker, as shown in a montage at the beginning of the movie that showed some home movies that Jerry shot with his kids. However, when you have three children to feed and a wife in a land that takes more than it gives, especially with foreign people, it stays a dream. Not only your heart is breaking before the events of the movie happens, but as the movie cleverly weaves the tale of Jerry being apprehended for a crime he was not involved in and the police threatening him to either cooperate or go to jail it’s almost unbearable.

Lawrence Chen, director and editor of the piece, creates this low-fi approach which reminded me of Sean Baker. The type of editing Chen exercises is one that some people would assume is simple and not flashy save for some fun fantasies where we see Jerry’s thought process. For example you have a sequence involving Jerry talking to one of the officers on a phone in his living room. Chen, knowing that the audience would be bored by just watching Jerry talking on his cell through the entire movie, the officer himself appears in the living room talking to Jerry face to face. It’s those types of touches that when a movie pulls it off, I really love. And when the final 15 minutes of the movie rolls around, bring your tissues, cause the final piece of the puzzle is heart-rending.

The only critique I have is that I wish the movie would be a little bit longer, for instance I wanted to know more about Jerry’s family, especially her ex-wife, which I cannot emphasize how funny she is. However, I cannot recommend this documentary enough, at the end of the day there’s some light in the tunnel. I don’t want you to think that it is all sad. The title of the movie is very significant at what the end piece is. It’s a cathartic moment when you finally realize what the movie is all about. Here’s a suggestion when you finish seeing the movie: Please call your grandparents. Just saying.

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