So many movies come out of the Sundance Film Festival, and others like it, laden with praise but oddly short on narrative invention, visual instincts and a story with something on its mind. Heartiest congratulations to "Dear White People," which is equipped with all three. It's a slyly provocative achievement and a serious calling card for its writer-director, Justin Simien.
He sets his ensemble affair on the campus of the fictional Ivy League enclave Winchester University, where African-American student life is marginalized yet marked by sharp personality distinctions. A quick prologue informs us there's been an incident ignited by a Halloween costume party, hosted by the campus humor magazine staff, designed for the white attendees to "unleash their inner Negro."
Flashback, five weeks earlier. We meet the biracial college radio deejay Samantha (Tessa Thompson), whose show "Dear White People" is a lightning rod for controversy. It helps that she's funny about her disdain. "Dear white people," begins one of her broadcasts, it's official: You now need to know at least two black people to "not seem racist."
Lionel, played by Tyler James Williams, is black and gay and therefore doubly at odds with his collegiate circumstances. After being assigned by the school paper to cover "black culture," he gets wind of the party plans and begins chronicling the warring factions behind those plans.
Simien deals in archetypes and stereotypes, but they're freshly observed. The smooth university dean (Dennis Haysbert) has loaded onto his son (Brandon P. Bell) every expectation under the sun, but all Junior wants to do is write for the humor mag. A reality TV series is casting on campus, and nobody wants that kind of stardom more than the hyperassimilated Coco (Teyonah Parris).
"Dear White People" sends these and other characters on various collision courses, yet Simien's script avoids the schematic quality of an outline. Free-floating cultural critiques come from every direction. Spike Lee's "School Daze" may have been one of the filmmaker's influences, but the shape of the movie is broader, more akin to "Do the Right Thing." Simien's dryly ironic tone is something else entirely. Waking up in bed one morning with her film class TA, Sam mentions her recurring "Cosby" dream -- "my hair was so straight...my sweaters, so big."
The smug university president (played by Peter Syvertsen) speaks of how "racism is over in America." Events on his own campus are about to prove him wrong. Shot at the University of Minnesota, "Dear White People" has a knack for setting up a series of ticking clocks and deadlines for its characters to contend with, even as they deconstruct the movie "Gremlins" for its racial politics or examine Tyler Perry's role in the culture. Simien has created a thoughtful comedy of all kinds of manners. Kathryn Bostic's lovely, understated musical score is a plus, but so is nearly every performance on screen. Thompson emerges as the heart and soul of "Dear White People." The actress gets a confessional monologue near the end, explaining a lot about her character's predicaments but in a blessedly rounded way.
I don't think Simien knew quite how to handle the climactic melee. His strengths are not with action; they're with the smaller, intimate scenes, the criss-crossing performance dynamics. "Dear White People" isn't perfect. And yet the flaws really don't matter. This is the best film about college life in a long time, satiric or straight, comedy or drama.
MPAA rating: R (for language, sexual contact and drug use).
Running time: 1:48.