Southern California Crime Gets Award-Winning Treatment at Sundance 2023

When two high drama crimes collide in California, how can it not become a movie? Entering the inspired by true events genre is “The Accidental Getaway Driver,” a film that takes a detour around sensationalism and instead focuses on the emotional life of the titular character.  Directed by Sing J. Lee  who co-wrote with Christopher Chen, this film was awarded the US Dramatic Directing Award and stars former “21 Jump Street” heartthrob Dustin Nguyen and  the 81-year-old Hiệp Trần Nghĩa.

A still from The Accidental Getaway Driver by Sing J. Lee, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Nghĩa plays Long Mã, the titular driver with a bitter sadness. Looking a bit shabby, he shuffles around and sometimes seems imprisoned by his ignorance of English. When he receives a call from a stranger, he doesn’t want to take the job. It’s late and he’s tired, but he’s also not well off and he has no one to advise him against it.

But the rundown lonely life of Long Mã is not where the film begins. In a place that is decidedly not California,  a young API  boy enjoys a hiding place in what seems to be a natural water formation. The film will circle back to this water oasis and its emotional significance, but that’s after we’ve been sloshing through a testosterone heavy storm.

The voice at the end of the phone belongs to Tây (Dustin Nguyen), a fellow Vietnamese American, who likely got Mã’s phone number from a Vietnamese newspaper. Tây has friends, Aden (Dali Benssalah) and another Southeast Asian American Eddie (Phi Vu). Aden doesn’t understand Vietnamese; Eddie, as his name suggests, is more at home in English.

Unfortunately for Long Mã, these men have just audaciously broken out of an Orange County jail and need a ride to freedom. Unfortunately for this threesome, their tempers will run short when they realize that beyond planning their escape, they have not formulated how and where freedom is for them as a statewide search begins.

As director Lee focuses on the men themselves instead of the action. The camera lens confronts each man and their fears and falsehoods. The plot doesn’t stray so far from what the newspapers have written about these events yet Lee and Chen’s script drives home the different journeys of immigrant men and how they might be caught in the middle of US and Vietnam culture, isolated from but not quite belonging wholly to either and desperately in search of the familial structures they have left behind.

This is a sensitive portrayal of the immigrant experience, of men losing and finding themselves and of men together as reluctant friends. “The Accidental Getaway Driver” has fully developed portrayals of all four men and might make you wish that Hollywood had found as many projects for Nguyen as his Jump 21 Street co-star Johnny Depp, but even if you might not want to spend an evening sharing a taxi with these men, this film is well-worth the time. Some dead end journeys can lead to cul-de-sacs of community.  In Vietnamese and English with English subtitles.

For more information about the actual January 2016 events, visit the below links.

Nayeri was a serious criminal without much to lose.


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