Peter Luisi’s ‘Unlikely Heroes’ sinks under its own self-importance

Jan. 29, 2015, 11:06 p.m.

Tedious and uninspired, Peter Luisi’s “Unlikely Heroes” is a paint-by-numbers film about immigration and white guilt set amidst the startling vistas of the Swiss Alps. Screening at The Berlin and Beyond Film Festival in Palo Alto on Monday (Feb. 2, Aquarius Theatre), this Swiss, German-language flick, which follows an amateur production of Friedrich Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell” at a home for asylum seekers, struggles valiantly under the burden of its own self-importance but, in the end, fails to do or say anything particularly memorable.

Recently separated from her husband and coldly abandoned by her posh socialite friends, middle-aged Sabine (Esther Gemsch) faces the prospect of spending the holidays alone. Unable to tell her snooty companions the truth about her plans for Christmas, Sabine elects to bend reality to her liking, informing the prudish women that she plans to pass her vacation directing a show (“Wilhelm Tell”) at the local shelter for political refugees. Her friends, however, insist on viewing the show themselves, and consequently, Sabine is forced into enacting her own falsehood. Thus, with a gaggle of nonprofessional actors of varying German fluency — and a startlingly hesitant sanctuary staff — Sabine sets out to produce an adequate, and not entirely humiliating, adaptation.

As Sabine, actress Esther Gemsch does passable work, but as with most of this tired film, you can’t help feeling that another selection might have produced better results. With Gemsch, there is no subtlety: Everything is dumbed down and painted in ridiculously broad strokes. When Sabine is supposed to be sad, Gemsch cries; when Sabine is supposed to be stressed, the actress takes deep breaths and massages her temples; when Sabine is supposed to be contemplative, Gemsch casts wayward stares into the off-screen space. Gemsch’s whole performance is gratingly simple.

Yet it’s also rather difficult to fault Gemsch for such an obvious performance when the script itself is so utterly devoid of nuance. “Unlikely Heroes” desperately wants to wag its finger at the politics of immigration. Luisi exploits every opportunity — and every character — to make some sort of hackneyed statement about the necessity of reform. Some characters are made to fall in love. Others are made out to be as flat and likeable as physically possible. Why? Because when they’re all unceremoniously deported — as the plot oh-so-frequently demands — Luisi desires to ensure that every last member of the audience is shaking a fist in indignation. It’s a condescending ploy, and frankly, it’s insulting to the film’s viewers.

Worse still is Luisi’s choice of framing device. Utterly convinced that white yuppie audiences will not understand the film’s message unless it is filtered through the eyes of the white elite, Luisi places Sabine front and center. As a result, potentially potent sub-plots and honest character development are both pushed to the back burner, all so that Sabine may hopelessly meander about, endlessly preoccupied with what her waspy confidantes are going to think of her play. Even more upsetting is that, when Sabine eventually wakes up and smells the roses, Luisi actually asks the audience to empathize with Sabine and her newfound feelings of white-savior-y-ness. Luisi chews up his message and force feeds it to audience as if all viewers are incapable of digesting anything of any actual depth.

In this regard, though technically sound, “Unlikely Heroes” is a defective mess. In an attempt to sound important, writer-director Peter Luisi bungles what could otherwise be an interesting story. In the past, similar films have succeeded (see: “Short Term 12”) where “Unlikely Heroes” fails and it’s a shame that no one thought to give this film the thorough re-write it deserves and so desperately needs. My advice: Skip “Unlikely Heroes” and catch a real film at this year’s festival.

“Unlikely Heroes” is screening at the Aquarius Theatre in Palo Alto on February 2 at 4:45 p.m. Discount tickets for students are available.

Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’


Will Ferrer is a junior at Stanford, a current member of The Editorial Board, and a former Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Arts & Life, and Film/TV Desk Editor at The Stanford Daily. Will is double-majoring in Film and Media Studies and English Literature. After a childhood spent nabbing R-rated movies from his brother’s collection, Will is annoyingly passionate about all things entertainment. Heralding from Northern Virginia, Will abhors Maryland drivers and enjoys saying he is “essentially from Washington DC.” Contact him at [email protected].

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