In 2008, writer Riley Thomas premiered his musical Stuck at the La Costa Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. From there, it moved to off-Broadway in 2012 before being commissioned as a film in 2016. With screenings taking place at festivals as early as April 23rd, 2017, it would be almost two more years to the day before Stuck would be released in mainstream theaters. With this knowledge, it’s hard not to want to root for Michael Berry’s cinematic rendition; however, there is the question of whether a story already seven years older than when it was first produced is still appropriate for audiences? Though there’s a place in storytelling to defend Stuck as incredibly modern in the way it uses the perspective of the leads against themselves in order for them to grow, there is another perspective which questions whether the execution of this is appropriate. Therein lies the struggle with appreciating Stuck. It upholds the male perspective while feeding the notion of female weakness. This fact makes a rather charming, well-crafted film hard to bear by its encore.
On an average day in New York, six passengers find themselves stuck when a police action requires their subway car to hold its position on the track. With the exception of busker Lloyd (Giancarlo Esposito), the other five all have places to be. With no end in sight, the strangers turn their focus on each other, instigating incredible tension as their conflicting perspectives put them at odds. Using song as their means of opening up (it is a musical after all), the six strangers begin to realize they possess more in common than initially believed.
So many musicals opt for fantasy over reality, which Stuck does not. Here, the music, like the songs and lyrics by Ben Maughan, Thomas, and Tim Young, channel the reality of the world, seeking to confront it head-on instead of packing it in something sweet or radio-friendly. This means audiences are treated to Esposito as Lloyd’s aggrieved “Crazy,” a song about what people perceive the train-riding busker to be; Omar Chaparro singing the bittersweet “Mas Que Bastane,” in which his character Ramon laments how being late for work translates to no dance class for his daughter; and Arden Cho’s performance of “Look,” a rage-fueled song detailing her character Alicia’s complicated past. These songs are not likely to receive heavy rotation, but that doesn’t mean that audiences won’t connect with their joy, their sorrow, or their rage.
None of the songs would be as impactful as there are without the performances to match. In many ways, the performances are incredibly minimal. In such a confined space, the actors don’t have room to walk, jump, or otherwise move, expect from one end of the car to another, so their ability to convey the journeys their respective characters undergo requires a more internalized performance. None do this better than Esposito. He’s an actor whose immense talent is on display in every facet of the performance. With simple changes in his face, Esposito communicates a full range of emotion without a single word. Not to mention, as the train’s resident, his role serves as both narrator for the audience and oft-aggrieved passenger, as his fellows look down on him for his appearance and perceived station. This, by the way, is a central element of Stuck – not Esposito, though he is important to the flow of the story – but the notion that the other five assume who Esposito’s Lloyd is and what he wants. This matters because the story makes sure to do the same with each passenger at one point or another. None are fully innocent, yet none are as blameworthy for the way they treat the other. The story gives them each a human perspective: faulty, but still culpable for their comments and reactions. Take the way Amy Madigan’s (Field of Dreams) portrays Sue, an academic whose every attempt at being helpful is undercut by multiple reductive, and clearly unintentional, backhanded comments. Even as an audience might shake their head at her clumsy assistance, referred to in the film as “white woman bullshit,” Madigan ensures that the audience sees her struggle, that the audience sees the intent through sheer physicality, even as the words fail. While the cast as a whole is strong, Chaparro isn’t given near enough to do, neither are Cho, Ashanti, or Esposito. Madigan’s character and performance, however, create a surprising anchor for the others to revolve around.
Where Stuck runs into trouble is the storyline involving Gerard Cononico’s Caleb and Cho’s Alicia. As the film opens and the audience meets the players in various situations, these two are introduced in the most off-putting way: Alicia dances in a private study, Caleb waits for her to exit and snaps a photo before following her. Once trapped on the train, he attempts to talk to Alicia through the music she’s so obviously listening to and refuses to take the hint, even when outwardly stated by Alicia. Of all the plots within Stuck, theirs is the one that grinds the whole emotional realism to a screeching halt. Instead of being about the redemptive nature of opening ourselves up to someone else’s perspective and, in doing so, finding something of yourself in others, Caleb’s story is one of possession, of white male ownership, of “I found something beautiful, therefore I am owed.” It’s absolutely disgusting and is somehow completely accepted by the end. The most frustrating aspect of this is that Alicia calls out Caleb when he claims what he’s owed and yet she still manages to forgive him. Where the other stories felt completely natural in their conclusions, even as previously unrealized connections the passengers possessed are revealed in a cutesy, somewhat eye-rolling “we’re all connected” way, the Caleb-Alicia story concludes in the most male gaze fantasy way possible. Sure, it’s intended as sweet, but is wholly unearned and quite repellent.
In spite of itself, Stuck is an earnest, grounded tale of strangers from different worlds coming to recognize the humanness, not humanity, we all possess that connect us and make us stronger. Though one storyline does distract, it doesn’t bring the film down as a whole. Michael Berry’s Stuck feels like a stage play, possessing the kind of magic which makes the real feel elevated, even when we’re all down in the muck. Gratefully, the cast lead by Esposito possesses the temerity and skill to keep the magic alive for the 90-minute runtime. Audiences may not run out to purchase the soundtrack, but maybe, just maybe, they will take a moment to ponder the perspectives of the people they meet on their way out of the theater.
Stuck is in select theaters now.
Available on VOD August 27 and DVD September 17, 2019.
Soundtrack available at various retailers.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.