Duvernay’s Ambitious “Origin” Tackles Society’s Great Divides

A brilliant new film imagines a world in which people outlast a system that makes outcasts. Writer/director Ava Duvernay’s cerebral drama Origin (A-) unfolds like a procedural as its central character, writer Isabel Wilkerson (sublime work by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), sets herself on a path of global investigation while authoring the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents about how civilizations ranging from Germany to India to the U.S. have oppressed and dehumanized certain groups in their societies. Watching the protagonist’s intellectual discoveries while she simultaneously grapples with tragedy makes for an unusual structure that summons evocative flashbacks and compelling side stories to demonstrate the interconnectedness of peoples’ plights around the world. It sounds heavy and is, but the journey is essential and the work has the ability to move and enlighten audiences in unexpected ways. Duvernay is in complete command here of her vision and builds on her compelling documentary moviemaking style to fashion a type of neo-parable that should be shown and discussed in every classroom around the world.  The lush cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd and the urgent music by Kris Bowers help propel a conversation-filled movie into a very watchable experience. Matching the majestic Ellis-Taylor are ensemble members ranging from the filmmaker’s muse, the exquisite and funny foil Niecy Nash-Betts, to a very nuanced performance by Jonathan Bernthal. Audra McDonald, Nick Offerman and many other familiar faces show up in the globetrotting adventure of enlightenment. There’s a quiet child performance in one sequence that alone is one of the most heartbreaking captured on film. As the director shows the man-made obstacles that block empathy  and a shared destiny among people, she points out optimism of a push toward collective freedom. The film is stirring and essential.

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