Locarno 2021 review: Actual People (Kit Zauhar)

Growing up is a challenge – and that’s not even saying anything about the experience of going through college. This is the foundation for Actual People, the quiet but resilient independent drama that serves as the feature-length directorial debut for the promising young Kit Zauhar. She also plays the leading character, an aimless college student who is only a few days away from her graduation but finds herself filled with a combination of regret and longing, which only complicates what are already the bittersweet final days of this particular chapter in her life. A bare-boned independent drama with brief but meaningful touches of gentle comedy, Actual People is a poignant triumph, a simple but effective voyage into the mind of a young woman trying to find herself in a world that has somehow become hostile to those who refuse to find a place within its preconceived standards. As a debut, and a film in general, Zauhar’s work here represents an auspicious start to a very promising career for someone who is likely to become an essential voice in contemporary cinema, if this film is anything to go by.

While most viewers are used to cinematic representations of college life as a blend of tedious lectures by day and reckless partying by night, many know this is pure artistic liberty, with reality being only partially reflective of such binary experiences. Zauhar intends to look into the college experience in a way that may be bleaker but is built on a steady foundation of hard-hitting reality. Often exceptionally raw, but in a way that is at least constructive and meaningful, Actual People intends to add depth to the superficial lives of college students as they navigate the awkward stage between adolescence and adulthood, where many are set free by their parents to discover themselves while furthering their opportunities in life. This is the aspect in which the director is stating some truly remarkable truths about how she perceives the college experience, positioning her character as a young woman who has always been on the outskirts of popularity, an observer rather than an active participant. This entails her reluctance to commit to an answer whenever someone asks her the dreaded question: “what are you doing after graduation?” Riley, like many other young people, is looking towards an uncertain future – the next stage of her life is on the horizon, and she should be feeling excitement at the prospects the future holds. However, without any direction in her life, turning the page to start the next chapter can be a daunting experience.

The reasons for this approach are not clear at the start – if anything, the character of Riley is constructed to be barely likeable, a meandering young woman whose primary purpose is to react to the trials and tribulations of other people. However, as the film progresses we start to see a method to what Zauhar is doing with this character. The film functions as a downbeat portrayal of a young woman trying to hold onto whatever remnants of her adolescence she can, while attempting to assimilate into adulthood, an inevitable change that she realizes is better made sooner than later. The “actual people” reference in the title is less a hint at the realist origins of the story and more about how the protagonist feels like an outsider in a world populated by people who have managed to pull their lives together in a meaningful way, while she is hopelessly lost. She is from a generation whose existences are seemingly fueled by desire – not only carnal lust, but a deep yearning for validation and acceptance in a society where even the most insubstantial achievements appear worthy of recognition. Zauhar sheds light on the inner quandaries of a group of people who are often dismissed for their hedonism and self-obsession, with the term “disposable” even being explicitly used to refer to the perspective millennials hold – but beneath this scathing commentary, the director is intent on showing how independence can be terrifying if someone doesn’t have a clearly defined destination at the end of their journey into adulthood.

Actual People is structured as a film about a young woman looking for romance in what she realizes are the final days of the period when she could be reckless without consequence. However, it evolves into something deeper, functioning as a story about accepting and celebrating one’s individuality, and the fact that we all tend to fall apart from time to time, especially in those formative years when nothing is exactly what it seems to be. Stark and often quite brutal in how it portrays the lives of these characters, the film is told with wit, candour and explicit detail, showing how every interaction in the life of a regular young person impacts her future, and how she works through the various challenges of everyday life. Insecurity masquerades as callousness in this film, which is the basis for both the thematic and tonal choices made by the director, who quietly pushes boundaries without deviating too far from convention. Instead, Zauhar’s most revolutionary decisions come in the more intimate sequences, such as in the fact that most of the film is propelled by conversation, but it’s often the wordless moments between discussions that mean the most, since they reflect the internal lives of these hopelessly lost characters. There is a deep sadness to the heartfelt humour that punctuates the film; the balance of the two, combined with the strong story and very natural performances from the whole cast, makes Actual People a fascinating film, and a worthwhile feature-length debut for someone who is bound to make an impact on the industry with her unique authorial voice.