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Sundance Review / A Different Man: A Surreal Tale About the Desire to Self-Actualize

©Photo by Matt Infante/Matt Infante-Sundance Institute

The most intriguing characters are often those who are bound by the empathic limits of their own lived experiences. That’s certainly true for Sebastian Stan’s protagonist of Edward in the new psychological sci-fi thriller, A Different Man, as societal expectations fuel his internal turmoil and sense of truth.

The film, which is a complex portrayal of the clashes between external perceptions and internal truths and identity, was written, directed and executive produced by Aaron Schimberg. The drama also stars Norwegian actress Renate Reinsve, the star of the Oscar-nominated romantic dramady The Worst Person in the World. British actor Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis and previously worked with Schimberg on the 2019 drama Chained for Life, also appears in the filmmaker’s new movie.

A Different Man follows Edward, an aspiring actor who feels isolated in his New York City apartment because of a genetic physical disfigurement. He has internalized the shocked stares that people regularly give him into stuttering, near-wordless shame.

Edward’s loneliness becomes so acute that he attaches himself to his deeply self-involved neighbor, Ingrid (Reinsve). The aspiring playwright takes an interest in him out of boredom and curiosity.

Edward’s luck seems to change when he enters a trial for a new drug that claims it will perform miracles on his life by altering his face. As a result, it will allow him to start a new existence as a conventionally attractive, all-American man.

After the trial proves to be successful, he tells people that Edward has died, and begins to introduce himself as Guy in order to start a new life. The trial went so well that he even lands a lucrative job in a real estate office.

But Edward’s new dream face quickly turns into a nightmare, as he loses out on the role he was born to play. When he learns that Ingrid has finished her latest play, which is inspired by his life, he’s determined to land the lead role. So when he goes in to audition, he brings a mold of his old face and wears it as a mask.

However, Edward’s no longer right for the part. The role is instead given to Oswald (Pearson), an upbeat, outgoing man who’s the opposite of Guy in every way except one: he has the same face that Edward did, but is much more expressive. So Edward becomes obsessed with reclaiming what he lost, no matter what emotional or physical toll the journey has on him.

Schimberg was born with a cleft palate, and therefore focuses much of his storytelling on changing the cultural views of such conditions. As a result, the scribe-helmer was able to lead Stan and Pearson to give boundary-defying performances in the psychological thriller. The filmmaker and actors ultimately crafted character arcs throughout the surreal think-piece that show how people from diverse backgrounds can eventually self-actualize, even when they aren’t represented in media.

Besides being upset with Oswald for being what he perceives to be the reason why he lost out on being cast in his dream role, Edward is also transformed by Ingrid during the time they spend together. Her unintended influential, looming presence in his life influences him to be permanently splintered into two separate personalities – Edward and Guy.

While the former always lived secretly with his conspicuous physical deformity, the latter finally achieved his life-long desire to achieve a more attractive appearance. But as Guy, he still struggles with being able to relate to the people around him, and find the appropriate way to communicate his experience of being someone who has lived with a physical deformity.

Stan effortlessly showcases how Edward is so overcome by the reality of his appearance that he’s intent on transcending his limitations in order to achieve his artistic potential. But Pearson and Reinsve perfectly embody the artistic and philosophical barriers that are placed on Edward’s ambitions through Ingrid and Oswald’s interactions with him.

A Different Man also amplifies Edward’s uneasy sense of identification through its technical aspects. The drama’s grainy naturalistic visuals, which were shot by cinematographer Wyatt Garfield, truly stand out.

Michael Marino, who served as Stan’s makeup designer on the movie, utilized realistic prosthetics to replicate many of Pearson’s signature features to shape Edward’s facial features. The most notable features include an asymmetrical brow, swollen lips and loose jowls.

Stan also emotes how Edward perceives the way the people in his life view him through his body language. Through stooping his shoulders and lowering his head, the Golden Globe-nominated actor portrays his character as pitiful, which in turn is how Ingrid depicts him in her play.

By shifting between diverse emotions and genres, including sci-fi and psychological thriller, Schimberg presents A Different Man as a dark and damning satire of America’s current social conditioning. That conditioning includes viewing asymmetry as ugliness, and subsequently internalize that superficial perception as inhuman.

The filmmaker worked with the Emmy-nominated Stan to craft a unique, deliriously surreal protagonist in Edward. The character is plagued by a mordant fatalism through the prism of his most personal obsession of improving his life through what he perceives to be an improved appearance. The character’s physical transformation offers a powerful social contemplation into whether a person can truly improve themselves and be happy by trying to live up to society’s standards.

A Different Man is an enthralling allegory for the modern tortured artists who routinely must remind themselves that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, while sensitively exploring the stigma around facial disfigurement. The drama is a blistering portrait of identity, authenticity and chronic dissatisfaction, as Edward begins to realize that his problems are more than skin deep.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Karen Benardello’s articles. 

A Different Man made its world premiere in the Premieres section at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. A24 is set to release the movie later this year.

Karen Benardello
Karen Benardellohttps://cinemadailyus.com
As a life-long fan of films and television shows, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic in 2008. Karen has since been working in the press in New York City, including interviewing film and television casts and crews, writing movie and television news articles and reviewing films and televisions series. Some of her highlights include attending such local events as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and New York Comic-Con, as well as traveling across North America to attend such festivals as the Sundance Film Festival, SXSW and the Toronto International Film Festival. She has been a member of the Women Film Critics Circle since 2012, and the New York Film Critics Online since 2019.

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