I watched American Insurrection on January 21, 2022, a year and a day after Joe Biden was sworn into the American Presidency to replace Donald Trump. There was definitely relief that day, and there still is, but there’s still fear that the underlying problems that led to 45 can never really be subdued. That we’re just waiting for the inevitable return to something as bad, or worse.
What “worse” looks like is the center of this film from director William Sullivan, who co-wrote the film with Jarret Kerr (who also co-stars). In their dark vision of the future, anyone who is not straight, white, Christian and cisgender is barcoded and kept in a lower social caste. Well, that was how it started, at least — until the Volunteers, an orange-clad group of rowdy men, decided to take it one step further and simply hunt down the people they hate so much. The Founder (Toby Leonard Moore), a charismatic politician who leads the group, would insist that wasn’t his goal while actively helping them. It’s a very clear parallel to the world many felt was coming under Trump and still fear can still come to pass.
Sullivan and Kerr’s film focuses on one group of survivors, holed up on a farm they stole from a Volunteer named Gabe (Michael Raymond-James). Their group is made up of several couples, all with their own anxieties, secrets and experiences. Zabi (Nadine Malouf) is the moral center of the film, a Muslim woman whose family was killed in a terrorist bombing by the Volunteers. Despite her tragic backstory, she insists on still finding some good in the world and engages in dialogue with Gabe against her friends’ reservations. Her husband, David (Nick Westrate), has his own past of secrets and struggles that become important later. Their friends, Sarah (Sarah Wharton) and Jarret (Kerr), help hide them. Everything comes crashing down when Sarah finds Arjay (Brandon Perea), a young gay man, being attacked by some Volunteers and chooses to save him. The eyes of hate fall upon the group, and they struggle to decide what to do next.
Like many small-scale post-apocalypse features, the action in American Insurrection mostly takes place in and around the farmhouse. It’s the sort of story where the violence is off-screen (until it isn’t) and the characters propel the story forward. Thankfully, the screenplay by Sullivan and Kerr does an excellent job giving each character their own distinct inner lives and motivations that are revealed over the course of the story. Although the premise seems to promise a liberal fantasy about how evil Trump supporters are, that’s just not what the movie is actually about. Rather, it borrows the cultural mood and recognizable events to explore a group of characters and their struggles to reconcile the people they are with the world that won’t accept them. Not to say it’s a particularly subtle film, but you don’t usually create a post-apocalyptic story if you want to hide your messaging.
It’s depressingly appropriate that American Insurrection has a 2.1 rating on IMDb with 759 ratings and a “Top Review” calling it “shameless pandering to the cult of woke.” All this means is that some group of right-wing dorks online heard about a film that takes them seriously enough to fear them and exercised the only power they actually have — clicking arrows on the internet and complaining. This is a much, much better film than the manipulated public ratings would have you believe, with a much more universal message about the grim reality of living in a world opposed to self-discovery and expression. Plenty of independent films try to tell dystopian stories like this, but they’re often derailed by a fascination with the aesthetics or become overbearingly depressing. This isn’t a film that pulls its punches, but it has much more on its mind than just being another exercise in maudlin, gritty storytelling. Thank goodness. It’s a good one.