Living in New York is like going online: When you know you can find a world-class example of whatever or whoever you long for if you just look long enough, it’s hard to stop searching. Most of us zigzag between curling up in whatever niche we’ve carved out for ourselves to enjoy the moment a bit and hunting for something more, either online or IRL. Restless City makes that duality its subject, alternating between its main character’s ceaseless travels through this often hostile or indifferent city as he tries to establish himself and his delight in its capricious generosity and moments of unadulterated grace.
The niche Djibril (Sy Alassane) occupies is a hustling, bustling underground economy created and populated almost entirely by African immigrants. A musician who dreams of making it here, he starts his journey on Canal Street, part of our growing army of Senegalese street merchants, but soon graduates to courier. The community he moves in is a large, mostly nurturing world, and Djibril floats through it beatifically at first, meeting, greeting, and eating as he goes. Then he falls for a gorgeous prostitute, Trini (Sky Grey) and his life starts to take a predictable slide toward tragedy. But even as the plot turns pedestrian and predictable, the look and feel of the movie remain sumptuously evocative.
Cinematographer Bradford Young uses the same rich browns and reds, stately compositions, soft lighting and shallow-depth-of-field focus on the actors’ gorgeous faces that helped make Pariah another of the most compelling movies to come out of Sundance this year. Costume designer Mobolaji Dawod’s clothes are beautiful too—which isn’t surprising when you consider that director Andrew Dosunmu started out as a fashion photographer. Whether it’s Djibril’s snug brown leather jacket, the fly straw hat worn on the record producer he hopes to work with, or earth-mother Sisi’s (Danai Gurira) print dress and matching headdress , the costumes don’t just look stylish enough for the glossies Dosunmu used to shoot for—they help establish character.
There’s not a lot of dialogue in Restless City, but the words aren’t missed. Often, as we watch Djibril and the other main characters go about their business, it feels almost like a silent movie, its music (a mix of energetic percussion and operatic emotion) the only sounds we hear. As he rides his Vespa though the city, Djibril’s big red headset blocks out everything but the African music he’s listening to—he’s literally deaf to everything outside his immigrant cocoon. Even when it’s not filmed in slow motion, as it often is, the film’s contemplative pace also helps keep us inside Djibril’s reality—and helps stave off the sentimentality and cheap melodrama that could so easily have ruined this simple story.
Dosunmu, who’s from Nigeria, has directed music videos for Common, Erykah Badu and other “artists that know themselves as artists,” as he puts it; written a book about African soccer stars; and made a lively documentary (Hot Irons) about the African-American hairdressing competition subculture. But his main interest is making films about Africa and Africans that broaden the narrow set of images we’ve been fed about his homeland.
That may have been his main objective in Restless City, but it’s not his only achievement. His first feature is about being a diaspora African, but it’s also about the agony and the ecstasy of being a New Yorker, surfing that endless wave of possibilities toward some possibly unreachable goal.