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Mamoudou Athie Deserves to Be a Star

We’ve only just scratched the surface of what the ‘Sorry for Your Loss’ and ‘Patti Cake$’ star can do.
Mamoudou Athie Unicorn Store
By  · Published on April 10th, 2020

Welcome to Filmographies, a biweekly column for completists. Every edition brings a new actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling.

Mamoudou Athie needs to be in all of the things. This is a conclusion I’ve drawn after exploring his resume for this week’s edition of Filmographies, even though his breadth of work is limited for the time being. When given ample room to do so, Athie effortlessly creates characters that feel complete, so much so that smaller offerings only make me ask, “Why isn’t this guy the lead in everything?”

Athie is making his way up the food chain with confident and consistent work, and I am truly waiting for that one opportunity that will burst doors open for him left and right. Perhaps Athie’s inclusion in the next Jurassic World installment will give him that well-deserved profile boost, although I posit that besides exposure, he doesn’t really need the blockbuster to resonate onscreen.

Although primarily making his mark in a selection of supporting roles so far, Athie radiates deeply human qualities that jump out at audiences immediately. His earliest films spotlight a ruminative sense that he lends to otherwise archetypal characters. Technically, Athie’s first big-screen credit can be found in the 2015 Michael Almereyda-helmed movie Experimenter. However, with a character so compelling as to be merely credited as “Crying Man,” I’d defer to Stella Meghie’s directorial debut, Jean of the Joneses, for a more definitive look at his beginnings.

Above all, Jean of the Joneses is a family drama about women and their myriad complexities. Yet, besides centering on the comings-and-goings of the eponymous Jones family, the film further examines the fraught relationships that each member cultivates with various men in their lives. The issues that spur from broken father-daughter bonds and toxic romances cause discord to bubble up and precipitate an emotional implosion for the Jones clan.

In Meghie’s film, perhaps Athie is let off the hook just slightly by virtue of getting to depict the sweet love interest to Taylour Paige’s complex protagonist. By and large, he is the most likable male character in the movie. He personifies the concept of having one’s shit together (at least, a little bit), starring opposite a comparably chaotic person who constantly runs from her problems. Athie is charming, and he nurses sparkling chemistry with Paige. He is an invitingly mellow presence in the film, aiding rather than directly facilitating this necessarily imperfect portrait of womanhood.

Notably, there are parallels between Jean of the Joneses and a later Athie release, Unicorn Store. Brie Larson’s directorial debut gleams and glitters with joyful poignance, examining nuanced differences between childish stubbornness and quirky youthful individualism. It’s the first film of Athie’s that I watched, and the deftness of his portrayal is so distinct.

Narratively, Unicorn Store is an emotionally driven bridge between unbridled creative ambition and cold-hard reality. It is to the film’s credit that Athie’s character — someone so deeply rooted in the latter end of this duality — could feel so warm and understanding. He plays Virgil, an unassuming man who works in a hardware store and dives headfirst into the weird and wonderful world of Larson’s idiosyncratic leading lady, Kit. They form a close, easygoing bond once he takes a leap of faith at her encouragement.

Of course, Virgil is so pragmatically-minded that he can’t help but question Kit’s blind faith in him at first. Nonetheless, the power of belief comes so easily to her and he is quickly inspired to put the limits of his imagination and ability to the test. Athie channels a subdued emotional intelligence as Virgil. His performance, which reads straightforward and genuine, subverts expectations of condescension towards the frills of Kit’s panache, showcasing that even the most practical people need a little magic in their lives.

This unreserved embrace of the ostentatious finds its way into some of Athie’s other roles, namely his turns in the Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis series The Get Down and Geremy Jasper’s feature film Patti Cake$. He has a relatively minor part in the former. That said, the Netflix musical drama is absolutely infectious, if sadly ill-fated (it was canceled after one season). For what it’s worth, Athie makes an undeniably cool impression as the real-life DJing pioneer Grandmaster Flash, serving as a mysterious mentor figure to a group of aspiring hip-hop artists traversing the late-1970s disco scene in the South Bronx.

Meanwhile, despite Patti Cake$ seeing Athie fill the shoes of yet another DJ, he is infinitely more awkward and bizarre this time. Surprisingly, that doesn’t come across as alienating in the slightest in this underdog movie. Jasper’s film tracks the life of small-town rapper Patti Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald). Her meteoric aspirations of success as a hip-hop superstar result in the formation of an unconventional rap group comprising numerous misfits.

Athie is one such oddball, portraying a self-proclaimed anarchist going by the name Basterd the Antichrist. Covered in a plethora of facial piercings and sporting a single white contact in his left eye as though such ornaments are a kind of protective armor, Basterd masks a shy, stunted inner soul with a toughened, aggressive outer shell. This demonstration certainly extends to his artistic endeavors as well. Before meeting Patti, Basterd’s music often sounds like a literal mess of barely intelligible shrieks and distorted guitar riffs. It’s a shame because these qualities overpower the incisive beats he has an affinity for. Once offstage, he barely speaks and certainly has no friend group.

Patti Cakes

Regardless, Patti easily empathizes with Basterd’s alternative vision and when she relates to him, so do we as an audience. Basterd is surely an extreme outcast whose inexplicable personality and intentionally blank stare brands him as fairly unreadable. But Athie imbues him with enough layers of tension and pain beneath the pseudonym that the process of unraveling his internal struggles doesn’t rewrite the inherent passions that have always defined him. Besides Patti’s coming-of-age, Basterd’s self-actualization is a complicated, compelling selling point in Patti Cake$. Put it like this: I’d watch a whole spin-off feature about Basterd.

No wonder talent like Athie’s makes me more than a tad miffed that he has ever been relegated to ultimately inconsequential roles. His appearances in Liz W. Garcia’s One Percent More Humid and James Ponsoldt’s The Circle frankly underuse him. Garcia’s movie is slightly more frustrating in this case, given the fact that it specifically loses all narrative potential regarding Athie’s character. Any rapport that he builds with co-stars Juno Temple and Julia Garner is ephemeral at best. Athie is clearly able to hold his own in stories that aren’t even about him, but when he literally disappears for a giant portion of One Percent More Humid, there is only so much he can do.

The Circle is muddled in many other aspects without a distinct focus on acting, seeing as it hypothesizes too much in its concerns about technological ubiquity. A silver lining of Athie’s tiny background part in Ponsoldt’s movie is his preliminary integration into the realm of science-fiction, though. Having displayed a talent for drawing realism out of illusory set-ups, Athie is primed for a far more substantial role in the genre down the line. For the time being, his return to sci-fi in both the short film Watch Room and William Eubank’s feature Underwater, however peripheral, would have to suffice.

Underwater is surprisingly character-driven in spite of the immediacy of its premise. Viewers are thrown directly into the action and mystery of the film without much prelude. A group of brave individuals finds themselves stuck at the bottom of the ocean, left to deal with the spoils of capitalist greed as it impacts scientific discovery. Characters such as Athie’s quietly nerdy Rodrigo Nagenda must then represent the best of humanity if they ever hope to survive. Unfortunately, it is once again a small role underselling his true promise as an actor.

In contrast, Watch Room feels like it ought to be much longer than its 16-minute runtime (watch it in full above). Directed by Noah Wagner, the short film discusses the practical challenges of artificial intelligence, postulating an eerie relationship between humans and the consciousness that they are capable of birthing. Athie stars as Nate, one of three scientists at the mercy of a potentially dangerous AI creation named Kate.

Of Watch Room’s most commendable merits, it is Athie’s weighted, ponderous glances that most aptly navigate Nate’s mixed feelings of utter trepidation and suppressed inquisitiveness. Such subtle glimpses are so contemplative that they ultimately explicate more fascinating possibilities about the film’s ambiguous plot than its exposition-heavy script fully allows. Nate is believably intelligent and empirical, all the while acknowledging that he has an inexplicable connection to Kate, too. Moreover, he is certainly the most empathetic among his inventor friends. It’s an especially fine, contoured performance, leaving us curious for more.

This exact quality of compassion allows Athie to pack a serious punch in Jason Reitman’s political drama The Front Runner. The biographical film about the rise and fall of US Senator and erstwhile presidential hopeful Gary Hart tugs audiences in many different directions, telling a story that expressly rejects assumptions of infallibility in politics and journalism alike. Regrettably, The Front Runner introduces so many elements of the Hart scandal point-by-point that the film loses momentum by its middle. However, Athie’s character, the inquiring A.J. Parker, manages to come across sprightly and alert anyway. He provides one of the film’s more profound voices whenever its focus trains towards the entrenchment of media influence in political races.

Throughout, A.J. is the first to ask the most incisive questions smartly. Athie’s lanky frame sneaks up on Hugh Jackman’s Gary Hart in various shots of the film, blurred out in the background but framed like a forever watchful eye on the senator’s activities. Someone like A.J. is possibly a little too earnest for the messy reality of his subject matter, but The Front Runner colors Athie’s knack for forthright ethics differently than his other films do. While A.J.’s commitment to journalistic integrity is commendable in many respects, his perspective can be read as fundamentally naïve and hence, deeply flawed. Athie approaches this necessary equilibrium with poise and assurance, creating many shades to a character who could have been two-dimensional.

Athie continually seeks out fully-formed characters for his resume as the years go by. At times, the projects themselves tell amorphous stories, such as the collection of comedy shorts known as Oh Jerome, No. In this instance, Athie is the linchpin performer leading it all. Adapted from the 2016 short film of the same name and later broadcast as chopped-up segments within the anthology Cake, the series firmly juxtaposes Athie’s intense onscreen presence against the peculiarities of surrealist situational comedy.

Oh Jerome, No comprises vignettes that follow its over-emotional titular character’s travails in life. It is an aesthetically ambitious answer to stereotypical conceptions of masculinity, tackling the topic of feelings by fashioning an exaggerated persona of a man who just doesn’t know how to handle them. Athie plays with a pendulum of emotional potency with the perfect mix of unflinching humor and genuine love that even the most unbelievable, absurd settings and situations are grounded.

The embellishments of genre stories notwithstanding, dramatic productions such as Sorry for Your Loss and Uncorked are some of Athie’s most prolific works. The latter, an unassuming but effective family drama, makes for a sweet, ideal leading vehicle for the actor; it’s his first one, in fact. Athie goes head-to-head against delightful veterans Courtney B. Vance and Niecy Nash in Uncorked, delivering a well-modulated familial dynamic that underscores internal conflicts surrounding expectations and desires.

In the same way that Athie wrangles potentially ridiculous themes at different points in his filmography, reasonably bringing them down to earth, he elevates more conventional material through a display of internalism and longing. He is truly exemplary for a part that so adamantly humanizes the flitting fancies of millennial dreams because he is as effortlessly changeable and heartfelt as they are. In Uncorked, Athie fights for the hustle of his ambitions. The film itself happens to be smart and understanding towards all of its other characters, too, which only bolsters the emotional weight of its protagonist’s journey.

Sorry For Your Loss

Finally, to say one “enjoys” a series focused on the sudden death of a loved one seems inappropriate. Nonetheless, Sorry for Your Loss isn’t actually a completely melodramatic downer by any means. Instead, the show operates as a celebration and understanding of human life, even amid soul-crushing tragedy. In the Facebook Watch series (that deserves to be renewed for a third season!), Athie portrays Matt, the deceased husband of Elizabeth Olsen’s principal character.

One would be mistaken to presume this constricts the space in which Matt gets to come into his own during every episode. Key flashbacks in Sorry for Your Loss don’t merely conceptualize him as a missing page in the life stories of others around him. Rather, because the show cares so much about the people adrift at its center, the trials of their social lives, careers, and well-being — including their mental health — are never cheapened. Memories of Matt’s life ensure that he is very much a fully fleshed-out human toiling against the suffocating waves of self-doubt and depression on his own terms. There is validity to his strife that many of his other projects either partially lack or forgo completely. Sorry for Your Loss lets Athie tackle hard-hitting dramatic beats by championing a character so resilient and relatable.

The discovery of new performers is one of my favorite things about film and television, and Athie is definitely one of the most intriguing faces to have graced the big and small screen in the last five years. In a short time frame, he showcases more than enough versatility to jump from the indie to the mainstream scene seamlessly. Athie’s rise has been a slow burn thus far, but he’s just getting started. And thankfully, it is always incredibly fulfilling to witness.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)