One of the best and most relatable themes in storytelling is one of the underdogs. We immediately sympathize with the protagonist as he/she must summon courage from deep within and stand up to the bully. For a lot of us, we’re living the life of the underdog in a way we don’t see but can definitely feel. Director Tom Riley and writer Richard Galazka’s short film, The Toll Road, is the story of one such underdog.
Emily (Lizzy Caplan) is a meek woman who is quite content with the little things she has in life. She’s married to Stewart (Martin Starr), loves to draw, eat muffins, and works in a lowly toll booth in the middle of nowhere.
The source of her only anxiety comes from her co-worker, Colin (Billy Gardell), who, for the lack of a better word, is a bully. He’s crass, steals Emily’s muffins from her lunch box, and takes every moment to humiliate her.
“The source of her only anxiety comes from her co-worker, who…is a bully…”
Emily refuses to bring her problems home from work, but like a good husband, Stewart knows exactly what’s going on with Colin and wants nothing more than to defend her. He goes so far as to ask Emily to deliver a letter he wrote to Colin about his behavior…which she secretly tears up. Everyone’s frustration comes to a head, when Colin ruins a special wedding anniversary gift, forcing Stewart to take extreme actions.
The Toll Road is Tom Riley’s commentary on the current climate of discourse in America. Politics, news, and specifically, social media have become the aggressors. We’re instantly connected with Emily as she is bullied into submission and worse…silence. Just look at current events. Every opportunity to be positive, show support for a cause, or express an opinion on social media, is met with anger, macro-aggressions, and caustic trolling. Once we’re pushed into silence, we’re now crucified for being silent, which loops back to judgment when we’re bullied into saying something. It’s a maddening loop.
What makes The Toll Road so amazing…and why I like short films, in general…is how it says, “I know how you feel. You’re not alone.” Director Riley does this through Lizzy Caplan’s understated performance as Emily. We see ourselves in her because we feel what’s she’s feeling. We feel her helplessness and sympathize with her desire to not “stir the pot.” Then add Martin Starr’s valiant Stewart as the hero. The only one willing to take the literal hits to stand up for the one he loves. Billy Gardell is a capable bully, but as good as he is, it’s easy to become a bully. I’m sure many of my friends and family online could have done just as good a job as Gardell…now I’m bullying.
Riley and Galazka’s The Toll Road is an excellent parable that exposes the perils of this vitriolic echo-chamber at its most echo-ee-ness.
"…the perils of this vitriolic echo-chamber at its most echo-ee-ness."