SUNDANCE 2021: ‘Prime Time’ Is A Quietly Chaotic Drama

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Prime Time

When the plot of a film can be summed up by the words ”hostage situation,” it builds a certain expectation in the audience. Though simple, the premise is full of possibilities: those words promise tension and drama, leaving the rest wide open. Prime Time fully embraces these elements, delivering on all fronts. Quietly chaotic, this film maintains its unpredictability all the way through, fulfilling the promises of its premise while grappling with the loaded fantasy of a one-man revolution.

Prime Time is set on the last day of 1999, the brink of a new millennium. It sits near the end of the pre-online era, before YouTube and Twitter were possible mediums, leading 20-year old Sebastian (Bartosz Bielenia) to hijack a TV broadcast. Though he comes equipped with a message and obvious emotional baggage, his motivation for seizing control of the station is far less interesting than his real-time reactions and rapid decision making. To carry out his plan, Sebastian takes hostage a famous TV presenter (Magdalena Poplawska) and a random security guard (Andrzej Klak). Between the three of them, complex dynamics are established as they struggle with the stress of the situation. Bielenia’s performance is particularly incredible. Constantly brimming with nervous energy, Sebastian often resembles a caged animal. While it’s clear that he hasn’t thought through every aspect of his plan, his swift decision-making and emotional turmoil keep the film moving.

Hanging over him are the studio managers and heads of the TV station, out of sight, quietly debating how best to handle the situation. Grappling with their own morals, they’re put in the position of negotiating with Sebastian; anxiously threading the line between pacifying and provoking him. To a certain extent, they enjoy a degree of anonymity — seeing Sebastian through glass or through a screen, they are rarely burdened with facing his humanity. As the audience, we are constantly confronted with humanity being threatened. Director Jakub Piatek takes time to ground the three main characters, humanizing them even in their littlest moments. This amplifies the film’s more dramatic moments, making for more than a few emotional gut punches. 

With a premise that could focus purely on the inherent drama of the situation, Piatek finds ways to explore the range and complexity of the emotions it breeds. Prime Time’s script, compact and clever, plays on martyrdom, prodding at Sebastian’s fantasy of revolting. As he becomes disillusioned by his own approach, we are constantly reminded of the film’s context: 1999. New Year’s Eve. This puts a clock on an already tense situation, arbitrary as the New Year may be, it waits like an ominous promise — as though when the clock strikes midnight, things will change. As the film progresses, we begin to wonder if there’s any room for change and any possibility of a fresh future for any of these characters.

Pacing-wise, Prime Time does hit a bit of a lull in the first half. Some time is spent getting comfortable in the situation and introducing the few elements that will affect it throughout. For the most part, the film is contained: Piatek adeptly builds tension and establishes a chaotically claustrophobic atmosphere. Sprinkled in are constant reminders of the world’s inability to slow down, even for a crisis that threatens lives. Packed with commentary, the film is thematically sharp, lacking only in its visual storytelling. While Piatek uses handheld camera work and excruciating close-ups to emotional effect, this is only true of the film’s most intense moments. Otherwise, the visual style leaves much to be desired. For a debut feature, Prime Time is very well put together, but makes you wonder — how much more could it have been, were it Piatek’s second or third feature?

Even so, Prime Time is everything you want from a film with a hostage situation: containing plenty of tension and intriguing character studies. A fascinating commentary on mass media’s relationship with humanity, this film is definitely worth a watch.

Prime Time
  • 7.5/10
    Rating - 7.5/10
7.5/10

TL;DR

Prime Time delivers tense drama in a chaotic and claustrophobic 90 minutes. While it endures a few lulls in its pacing and isn’t visually dazzling, it maintains its unpredictability all the way through.