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Sundance 2021 ‘Prime Time’ Review: A Tepid Experience Misled by a Hollow Protagonist

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
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In case you haven’t heard, everybody wants to be on TV. Ever since the ubiquitous idiot box first invaded living rooms worldwide and changed the very floorplan of the average modern home, an awful lot of writers have felt compelled to remind us how devilishly enticing — and confounding — the spotlight can be. Jakub Piątek’s tepid thriller Prime Time restates this basic idea with a fairly straightforward approach, and though the film almost convincingly feigns some eleventh-hour self-awareness, the experience never manages to differentiate itself from a run-of-the-mill hostage drama with misguided delusions of grandeur. 

It’s New Year’s Eve, 1999, and in one Polish television studio, crew members hustle and bustle during a giveaway telecast hosted by uptight TV personality Ms. Mira (Magdalena Poplawska). As the runners, producers, guests and security guards are distracted by the buzzing environment and looming celebrations, shrewish young maniac Sebastian (Bartosz Bielenia, known for the Oscar-nominated Corpus Christi) manages to infiltrate the building. First he takes unassuming guard Grzegorz (Andrzej Kłak) hostage, then Mira, and eventually, he manages to get the entire studio under command. Police enter, negotiators get involved, some hostages are let go, and Sebastian’s intentions become less and less decipherable as the night wears on, such that the bulk of the film is spent observing Grzegorz, Mira, and Sebastian waiting around and reconsidering their respective plans. It’s not thrilling.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

That feels strange, because until Sebastian succeeds in asserting himself on the premises, Piątek’s film pulses with a great energy reminiscent of much tougher, smarter crime thrillers. The pacing hums along, the soundscape is engrossing, and the teasing of an intensity to come is very well crafted. However, the film quickly and obviously begins to confuse itself, as Prime Time replaces immediacy with navel-gazing, and then shuffles and yawns its way into insipid character drama.

Before long, various hackneyed revelations about Sebastian’s identity and supposed goal that night are introduced, yet not a single one of these developments brings much intrigue or nuance along with it. Turns out Sebastian was bullied by his father. Turns out he once had a stutter. Turns out he’s a little unstable. Turns out the movie’s trying to address the sea change that accompanied the millennium, in which the corrosive tensions of Polish society were causing swathes of young people to either emigrate, implode, or turn to crime. 

The most compelling aspects of Prime Time suggest a fascination with the slow death of a country’s hope and optimism, especially against the backdrop of what should be a momentous turn of the page. Sebastian, in many ways, embodies the aggressively rebellious youth who strike out against whatever reflection of their malcontent is nearest and most obvious, even if the action will unquestionably prove futile. He chooses to attack the TV because it’s the simplest representation of what’s been irking him, and yet Piątek deliberately chooses not to explain even the general parameters of Sebastian’s worldview. He’s just a blank, bland metaphor for confused anarchy that repeats the same tired observations ad nauseam. 

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

One moment does use valid anarchic derision to point towards a greater value in Sebastian’s actions and Piątek’s otherwise inessential piece. Seemingly on a whim, Sebastian insists to the first of several police negotiators that he intends to kill one of his hostages, but that the authorities can choose which one gets to survive. At first, they try to dismiss the depraved concept altogether, but under Sebastian’s persistence, the negotiator blurts out a plea to spare Ms. Mira. Piątek structures the scene well, and drives home an obvious but chilling reminder of which lives we intrinsically value more. If pressed, lonesome drones like Grzegorz tend to get the axe over those with brighter star power. It’s sick, but it’s not a bad point. 

Truthfully, Grzegorz himself provides many of the film’s most memorable dynamics. In addition to being at the center of the terrible choice mentioned above, he leads a surprisingly heartrending moment elsewhere in the film that questions if having his life threatened as a helpless hostage on national television may well have been this man’s greatest achievement. At least he got to be on TV. 

In all, Prime Time is a weak shot with an overly familiar taste, watered down with faux dynamism and an obnoxious conclusion that refuses to be either competently entertaining or intellectually stimulating. Poplawska embodies Mira with a convincing sense of delusional arrogance, casting her as a woman existentially incapable of putting others before herself, but the film’s overwrought obsession with figuring out Sebastian undercuts the supporting players’ decent work. Bielenia could have been much worse in the role, but he still fails to make Sebastian worth this much attention: he’s a fairly predictable, sociopathic softboy whose hands are too small for the big gun he’s holding, whose ego is too big for his weak composition, and whose ideas are too vague to ever prove interesting. Perhaps that’s too good a description of a worrying amount of real people moping around today, but Prime Time is too scatterbrained and unconvincing a film to find its intermittent profundities anything but incidental. 

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