SUNDANCE 2021 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! Jakub Piątek’s Prime Time opens with a low angle shot of a young man smoking a cigarette in the dark of night. The only light cast over him is from a tall building, which looms high and mighty. From the opening few minutes, the director creates a tense atmosphere. The young man doesn’t say anything when first shown on screen, but his nerves are palpable with every drag he takes of his cigarette.
The movie takes us inside the building, where the young man is sitting in the lobby. Who is he waiting for? What is he waiting for? His anxious aura suggests he might not exactly know why he is in the building. People are buzzing throughout the hallway, dressed in gowns and tuxes. It’s a stark juxtaposition to what the mysterious young man is feeling.
Shortly after, we enter a television studio, where a crew is getting ready to go live for a New Year’s Eve broadcast. The host, Mira (Magdalena Poplawska), is frantically getting dressed as she prepares to host the event. There’s an excitement in the air, but the crew has no idea what is lurking outside their studio. Mira takes one call from a listener, and the young man, who we learn is named Sebastian (Bartosz Bielenia), enters the studio with a security guard and a gun drawn. No one immediately reacts. Is this real? Is this a sick joke? After the initial shock fades, everyone inside becomes fully aware Sebastian is standing in front of them and is no joke.
“…Sebastian enters the studio with a security guard and a gun drawn.”
The screenplay, co-written by Piątek and Lukasz Czapski, keeps Sebastian’s motives hidden for some time, which is helpful in creating suspense for the audience. It also demonstrates Sebastian might not have a firm grasp on why he is there. Once he reveals himself in the studio, armed, he seems to be making up his plan as he goes. He throws Mira and the security guard in a van, which is donned with a big red bow as part of the evening’s giveaways and tries to show he in charge. Sebastian knows he is winging his every move, but as long as he holds the gun, he has the power.
Prime Time is a solid exercise in atmosphere and tension. Piątek gets the action moving quickly, and while the reigns loosen a bit as the film can’t sustain such suspense for the entire duration, he effectively puts us in the room with the characters. Another layer of subtle tension is that Prime Time is set on New Year’s Eve 1999, and Y2K panic is sweeping the world. Anxieties were already high going into the evening, and Sebastian only heightened them.
Bielenia is magnetic here, portraying a wayward young man who is out of control but must pose as someone who is in control of an extreme situation. Even when Prime Time hits a few narrative snags, Bielenia is always mesmerizing to witness. It’s a nuanced portrayal from an up-and-coming actor.
Prime Time screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
"…a solid exercise in atmosphere and tension."