Give Me Liberty

Lauren "Lolo" Spencer plays a passenger in a medical transport van driven by Vic (Chris Galust) in the Milwaukee-made "Give Me Liberty."

The thing about caring for your fellow man is that sometimes your fellow man can be a real pain in the ass.

He’s exhausting, he’s cranky, he’s ungrateful, and maybe he resents that he even needs help. But sometimes he does. The big-hearted Milwaukee-made comedy-drama ‘Give Me Liberty” shows the grueling, often thankless work of devoting your life to helping others. And it also shows why such caring is needed in the world, perhaps now more than ever.

Madison is one of just a handful of cities, including New York and Chicago, where “Give Me Liberty” will begin its theatrical release, opening Friday at Point Cinemas. But before that, Madison audiences can catch it for free at 7 p.m. Thursday at 4070 Vilas Hall, where it will kick off the fall UW Cinematheque series.

Director Kirill Milhanovsky based the film, with a screenplay written by Milwaukee playwright Alice Austin, on his own experiences as a first-generation Russian American, working as a medical transport driver. Vic (Chris Galust) races around working class neighborhoods, ferrying passengers to job interviews, doctor’s visits and other appointments.

The system is overloaded, with too few drivers and too many passengers. Vic’s always overbooked and always running late (his plea that he'll be somewhere in “10 minutes, tops” becomes a running joke in the film).

“Give Me Liberty” takes place over one particularly disastrous day, where Vic is also trying to shuttle a vanload of elderly Russian American relatives to a funeral. And there’s unrest in the neighborhoods in the wake of an officer-involved shooting — an echo of the protests that followed recent shootings in the city.

Thrown together in the van are a cross-section of the city, including those Russian immigrants, a sweet Elvis-loving Latinx woman on her way to a talent show, and a determined African American woman with ALS (the remarkable Lauren “Lolo” Spencer). As Vic falls farther behind schedule, his passengers start arguing with each other, and “Liberty” keeps getting funnier. But even as the film piles up the obstacles in his way, Vic never gives up, and that determination to help those who depend on him is the beating heart of the film.

Much of “Give Me Liberty” feels like a documentary. Milhanovsky has cast mostly nonprofessional and first-time actors, and Austin’s dialogue feels natural and improvised. Milhanovsky’s rapid-fire editing keeps the momentum moving as fast as the van, although a foray into black-and-white in the film’s dramatic climax feels a little precious. Among the standout performances is Maxim Stoyanov as a charismatic Russian, Dima, who claims to be related to the deceased. Nobody really knows who he is, but he’s so gregarious that nobody stops to question him. “Why Wisconsin?” Dima asks, shivering in the Midwest cold. “America so big.”

“Give Me Liberty” makes remarkable use of Milwaukee’s working-class neighborhoods, and there’s a stark beauty in the empty fields and faded brick apartment buildings flying by outside the van window. In one scene, an elderly Russian frets that they’re entering a “bad part of town” — the African-American part. But to us, it looks exactly the same as the neighborhood she lives in.

And that’s the point of “Give Me Liberty,” that while Milwaukee and the nation may be politically and racially segregated, we share the same dreams and needs as people who don’t look like us. Deep down, we’re all in the same boat — or the same van.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.