Sundance 2016: ‘How to Tell You’re a Douchebag’ Lives Up to its Amazing Title and Then Some

How to Tell You’re a Douchebag
Written and Directed by Tahir Jetter
U.S., 2016

The main character, Ray Livingston, has a job that seemingly only exists in film. He runs some dating blogs, and somehow makes a living from it. Scenes predominantly feature young people who seemingly have nothing but free time to walk around and talk to each other, and eat with each other at fancy restaurants. This is the type of movie and characters I frequently hate, so why did I find myself loving it so much? Why did it feel fresh, original and unique, like something I had never seen before? Because these were roles and depictions always reserved for white actors.

Writer/director Tahir Jetter has taken these roles and depictions and rewritten them to depict a portion of African-American life so non-existent in modern cinema – normal life. Hollywood would never make this film. It’s so incredibly refreshing to see new life breathed into such tired characters and representations.

Jetter crafts How to Tell You’re a Douchebag to be a funny, charming and poignant work on trying to become a better version of yourself. Ray Livingston (Charles Brice) is a womanizer who demonizes women on his blog “Ocassionally Dating Black Women.” One day, he messes with Rochelle Marseilles (DeWanda Wise), a prominent writer in the media, and finds his name dragged through the mud. Strangely enough, a sort of romance develops between the two as they keep running into each other.

Charles Brice is plenty charismatic as Ray, playing both the charming and “douchey” aspects of Ray equally and honestly. Ray is a douchebag, but Jetter and Brice make him one that we can see ourselves in. DeWanda Wise is a commanding presence as Rochelle, owning each scene and interaction she has with an unbeatable wit and charm. The chemistry between herself and Brice is a winning one, the sparks between them warming up the edges of the screen. William Jackson Harper plays Jake, Ray’s friend, with a nice sense of comedy and affection in his honest friendship with Ray. There’s a welcome comedic presence from Alexander C. Mulzac as Paul, Rochelle’s quasi-boyfriend in a relationship that’s only for show at this point. I was also probably one of the only people in the theater that squealed when New York Magazine writer Rembert Browne showed up for a brief cameo.

Jetter keeps his direction focused closely on his characters. The images that he and cinematographer Cory Fraiman-Lott construct are warm, romantic ones that retain a close intimacy with Ray and Rochelle as they interact. These subtle notions from their framing nudge you to want them to end up together, even if they probably shouldn’t. The conclusion is a realistic, sobering one that keeps in line with Jetter’s core theme of trying to better yourself, even if that happens little by little. During the Q and A, Jetter joked that he was a “reformed douchebag,” talking about the fact that much of the screenplay was written about a period of his life. Writing from an autobiographical place, Jetter acknowledges that there is no Hollywood ending available for Ray. There is only the self-realization that he needs to better, and that he can do better. How to Tell You’re a Douchebag is a modest trailblazer of a romantic comedy, a debut that marks Jetter as a unique cinematic voice to keep an eye on.

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