Origin Review | The Tangled Roots of Our Discontents

by Andrew Parker

Origin, the latest film from writer-director Ava DuVernay, is an artful and purposeful mess. And I mean mess in a good way. While a lot of the thinking, plotting, and developments of Origin are all over the place, DuVernay’s film still presents itself as a cohesive whole, precisely because it shows the intricate thought processes of someone trying to make sense of the world around them on both personal and academic levels. It’s not always entertaining to watch, and even the entertaining bits often come across as heavy-handed and melodramatic, but Origin is thoughtful, reasoned, and unique in its attempts to understand the intersections between prejudices and tragedies. 

When we first meet her, Pulitzer Prize winning writer and journalist Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) is struggling to find balance between her personal and professional lives. She’s in the midst of researching a project that would create connections between enslaved American peoples, the traditional Indian caste system, and the Jewish holocaust during World War II, but also worried about the welfare of her ailing, aging mother (Emily Yancy). Although she finds tremendous support from her adoring, patient husband (Jon Bernthal, delivering a career best performance) and equally caring cousin (Niecy Nash-Betts), the combination of heavy subject matter – which has grown weightier in the wake of the real life Trayvon Martin shooting – and personal tragedies eventually finds Isabel becoming part of her own work.

Origin is hard to explain, but it’s a film meant to be discussed and pondered rather than easily digested. If one were to quiz DuVernay about what the film means, she would probably be more interested in the response of the person asking the question. It’s based in part on the real life Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, but adapting such a work of scholarship outside of a documentary would be a fool’s errand. Just like Wilkerson had to search for connections and meaning, DuVernay has to find the right threads to pull on in order to turn Isabel’s work into a dramatic feature.

It’s no small feat, and the results are admittedly mixed, but DuVernay’s heart and mind are always in the right places, making the more obvious flaws and peccadillos forgivable. Origin is always jumping around between past and present; between the emotional and the historical. The lines are constantly being blurred, but the underlying impact of those histories have to be discussed in a present context. As such, Origin sometimes can’t help coming across as didactic or overtly scholarly. There are large passages where people discuss global and historical similarities with a lot of passion and nuance, but there’s not much DuVernay can do to make these wheel grinding moments of factual and philosophical exposition come across as cinematic. It’s fascinating to listen to, provided that the viewer is fully invested in what Origin has to say, but also static and inert.

At times, DuVernay overcompensates for such moments of lecture by leaning heavily into a sweeping sense of melodramatic style, especially during flashbacks to World War II depicting a young German man (Finn Wittrock) trying to protect his beloved Jewish girlfriend (Victoria Pedretti). It’s a bit disjointed from the more static moments, leaving them with the appearance of being brought in from a much more conventional project that would be more easily understood and embraced by mass audiences as a piece of emotionally stirring entertainment. Origin jumps around a timeline as a necessity to make its points, but DuVernay similarly flies across the tonal and emotional map in sometimes frustrating ways. There are moments where Origin feels impenetrable, and others where it comes across as reductive and simplistic.

But through it all, one things remains clear, and it’s the point that matters most. Origin is a film trying to do the almost impossible: making sense of a historically divided and prejudicial world built on senseless acts of violence, othering, persecution, and racism. Wilkerson’s on screen surrogate – played with grace and patience throughout by Taylor – is putting all that she can into this project, but in order to make it as well rounded as possible, she has to step outside of her comfort zone and put aside her own conscious and unconscious biases. There’s a fascinating element to Origin that revolves around confronting one’s own deep seeded beliefs about where “truth” lies, and how it is shaped by a number of key factors. Even more interesting is how characters react and interact when they learn that their version of “truth” can cause others to feel slighted or looked down upon. DuVernay never pretends that Origin can solve all of the world’s problems when it comes to class and racial divides, but does a great job of making attentive viewers carefully consider the roots of their own beliefs and privileges.

Origin also fascinates through its empathetic depiction of a writer getting inexorably entwined in their own work. In DuVernay’s best dramatic element here, Wilkerson constantly doubles down on her professional work as her personal world begins to crumble. The more her own life gets in the way, the more deeply Wilkerson starts to feel the impact and weight of her own research and interviews with like minded subjects. Origin delicately and tactfully illustrates that all tragedy is personal and universal at the same time, just like all politics are local and global in equal measure. Every loss and injustice leaves a void and takes a toll on humanity, no matter how great or small. And through a careful examination of what such a statement could mean, any writer or creative type worth their salt – Wilkerson and DuVernay included – will become a part of their work.

Sometimes messy is better than perfect, and Origin is definitely a prime example of that statement. If Origin were too streamlined and slick, it would feel watered down, ineffective, and pandering. If it were a straight up lecture directly addressed to the camera, Origin would struggle to maintain any interest outside of people actively willing to take notes (which would probably suggest they would’ve been better off just reading the book instead). DuVernay understands that some of the most profound reflections in such material comes from parsing the messy middle; the grey area that contains seeds of nuance and truth that can blossom into a larger form of living matter. It’s a lot to take in, and not all of it “works,” but Origin remains a fascinating, ambitious, and uniquely hopeful cinematic experiment.

Origin opens in select Canadian cinemas, including TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, on Friday, January 19, 2024.

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