Review: ‘The Daphne Project,’ starring Zora Iman Crews

July 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zora Iman Crews in “The Daphne Project” (Photo courtesy of Mailuki Films)

“The Daphne Project”

Directed by Zora Iman Crews and Alec Tibaldi

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedy film “The Daphne Project” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American and one Asian) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An African American actress, who’s a self-proclaimed “social justice warrior,” aims to disrupt racism and sexism by joining the cast of an off-off Broadway production of Euripides’ tragedy “The Bacchae.”

Culture Audience: “The Daphne Project” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of mockumentary-styled movies and don’t mind watching movies that look amateurish and have lukewarm comedy.

Reed Lancaster and April Lavalle in “The Daphne Project” (Photo courtesy of Mailuki Films)

“The Daphne Project” might have been a well-intentioned satire of social justice warriors and performing arts cliques, but everything about this mockumentary looks like a substandard student film. The acting is terrible and just not funny. The last third of the movie really falls apart and has an ending that’s very phony. “The Daphne Project” could have been edgy and different, but ultimately it’s bland and predictable.

Written and directed by Zora Iman Crews and Alec Tibaldi, “The Daphne Project” (which takes place in New York City) starts with a very unique concept: An African American actress named Daphne Wilco (played by Crews), who’s a self-proclaimed “social justice warrior,” aims to disrupt racism and sexism by joining the cast of an off-off Broadway production of Euripides’ tragedy “The Bacchae” that will incorporate modern dance. Daphne, who is the only African American in this predominantly white cast, has an unnamed role as part of this ensemble. In this very small cast and crew (only about 10 people are shown in rehearsals), all of the people are in their 20s.

Viewers will learn almost nothing about Daphne’s backstory while watching “The Daphne Project,” which is thankfully only 66 minutes long. “The Daphne Project” has been listed in some places as being a 97-minute movie. And that might have been true when the movie was at some film festivals. However, “The Daphne Project” movie screener that was provided to the media to review has a total running time of 66 minutes.

“The Daphne Project” is really just a series of skits choppily edited together. For transitions between scenes, the movie uses a few generic shots of Times Square, as well as title cards with pretentious quotes. The first two-thirds of the movie have the repetition of Daphne—who thinks she’s brilliant, talented and an expert on political correctness—doing things to alienate her colleagues during rehearsals of “The Bacchae.” Almost the entire movie is set at the unnamed theater venue where “The Bacchae” rehearsals and live shows will take place.

In the beginning of “The Daphne Project,” Daphne is seen getting her makeup done at the theater, intercut with shots of her walking and dancing outside on the streets of New York City. Daphne talks to the camera to let people know that she’s been doing theater since she was a kid in Des Moines, Iowa. There’s no information on how long she’s been living in New York City, or if she’s ever done any shows in the New York theater scene before she was cast in “The Bacchae.”

Daphne brags, “I was once a Desdemona [a murdered character from William Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’] that woke up. My ghost was running around the palace. It was a whole thing. I didn’t tell anyone I was going to do it.” This is the type of flat remark that’s supposed to pass as “comedy” in “The Daphne Project.”

Daphne is apparently getting a documentary made about her experience doing “The Bacchae,” but don’t expect to get details on who these documentary filmmakers are. An unnamed male camera operator is heard talking to her in a scene, and that’s about it. Daphne also announces that she’s doing selfie filming with her phone for videos that she will be posting on her social media. Expect to see selfie videos of Daphne talking about herself in a narcissistic way.

Right from the beginning, “The Daphne Project” lets it be known that Daphne is extremely irritating. One of the movie’s earliest scenes takes place during “The Bacchae” production’s first table read, which is a gathering of cast members sitting together while reading dialogue from the script, with the project’s director and assistant director in attendance. Daphne says that she’s deliberately 20 minutes late for the first table read, so that she can stand out from everyone else and get them to wonder why her life is so busy that she showed up late.

Actually, it just makes Daphne look rude and unprofessional when she walks into the room with an entitled attitude about being tardy. She hastily adds in her on-camera monologue that she’s only late for the first day of rehearsals. “I don’t want anyone to think it’s a thing,” Daphne says. But she’s so tone-deaf that she doesn’t think about how being this late gives people a negative first impression of her.

The other people in this low-budget production of “The Bacchae” are:

  • Phineas Reeve (played by Reed Lancaster), a pompous Brit who is the director of “The Bacchae.”
  • Joanne Lundholm (played by April Lavalle), an insecure neophyte who is the assistant director of “The Bacchae.”
  • Dylan Horowitz (played by Duncan Menaker), the actor who has the role of Dionysus and who frequently mentions that Oscar-winning actress Diane Keaton is his aunt.
  • Carla Damiano (played by Annie-Sage Whitehurst), a snooty Brit who is part of “The Bacchae” ensemble in an unnamed role.
  • Vivian Mendoza (played by Geena Quintos), a conceited snob, who has an unnamed role in the ensemble and is the production’s dance captain.
  • Trish Ducat (played by Yael Rizowy), a hyper eccentric who has the role of Agave and who mentions that she’s obsessed with Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning 1977 movie “Annie Hall.”

“The Daphne Project” is so poorly written, it never bothers to explain why no one has been cast as King Pentheus of Thebes, one of the central characters of “The Bacchae.” Agave is Pentheus’ mother. Expect to see a lot of embarrassing over-acting in and out of “The Bacchae” rehearsals, including “The Bacchae” cast members rolling around on the floor and shouting gibberish during rehearsals. They don’t look like they’re rehearsing a classic play. They look like they’re acting how people do at a pretentious cleansing retreat that gives psychedelic drugs as part of the “cleansing.”

Considering that Trish has a fascination with “Annie Hall,” and “Annie Hall” co-star Keaton is Dylan’s aunt, “The Daphne Project” could have mined that connection for some hilarious comedy. Instead, the only “joke” about “Annie Hall” that the movie can come up with is having Trish say this boring statement: “‘Annie Hall’ really changed my life. Like, what would Annie Hall do? When I’m having a really crummy day, I just put on a hat.”

Although the Annie Hall character did wear some hats, Annie Hall’s signature wardrobe choices were more about her wearing ties and vests. The Annie Hall “joke” in “The Daphne Project” doesn’t work very well with people who are unaware of the “Annie Hall” movie and title character. It doesn’t seem like the target audience for “The Daphne Project” would understand this so-called joke about “Annie Hall,” so it’s yet another questionable choice from “The Daphne Project” filmmakers. At any rate, the character of Trish is then essentially sidelined for the rest of “The Daphne Project.”

The movie then continues with a dull parade of buffoonery scenes where Daphne is every worst stereotype of a “social justice warrior.” When Phineas and Joanne see that Daphne has no talent and is very unprofessional, they try to fire her. But then, Daphne uses the race card and makes a thinly veiled threat that it wouldn’t look good if had this headline about this “Bacchae” production: “Black Actress Fired From an All-White Cast.”

Daphne also acts like she’s some kind of militant feminist attorney when she sees that Phineas and Joanne are more than just co-workers and have been dating each other in a consensual relationship. Phineas doesn’t want the relationship to be monogamous, and he convinces Joanne that she’s being old-fashioned and uptight if she wants monogamy. Daphne won’t mind her own business and bluntly approaches Joanne to ask if she’s been MeToo’ed in this relationship with Phineas. This scene is as unfunny as it sounds.

Meanwhile, Carla and Vivian, who are the “mean girls” of this production group, take pleasure in making Daphne feel like a social outcast. When the group members go to a bar for drinks together after rehearsals, they deliberately leave Daphne behind at the theater when they go to the bar. The next day, Carla and Vivian try to make Daphne feel like she missed out on a great event.

Daphne tries to act like this exclusion doesn’t bother her, but she sobs on camera when she’s by herself: “I just think sometimes when you’re really gifted, people are threatened by that. It’s not the first time it’s happened. It’s really hard being extraordinary.” By this point, viewers will have grown tired of the insufferable ego posturing of Daphne and her equally unlikable colleagues, so “The Daphne Project” quickly loses any appeal it was trying to have.

There’s also a dreadful scene where Vivian, who is of Filipino heritage, gets offended when Daphne describes herself as the only person of color in this theater group. Daphne further insults Vivian’s Asian racial identity by saying that Daphne is talking about dark skin tones when she means “person of color.” None of this is anywhere remotely amusing. It’s like watching stale jokes that would’ve been rejected by “In Living Color” back in the 1990s.

Through a series of circumstances, Dylan is no longer in the show. He’s replaced by Tyler Cody (played by Jake Horowitz), a hack actor/TV heartthrob starring on a quasi-reality show series called “Redondo Beach” on The CW network. “Redondo Beach” is described as a show about affluent young people. Daphne screams in disgust that this “Bacchae” production has hired a teen idol, not a “real actor,” for this role.

However, Daphne is so insecure, when she sees that Tyler has a personal assistant with him at rehearsals, Daphne decides she’s going to pretend to have her own personal assistant. She recruits a snippy friend named Laramie Tambling-Goggin (played by Ed Norwood), who’s originally from England, to fake being her personal assistant. Laramie tells the camera that he met Daphne a few years ago through a “RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] intensive.”

Of course, Daphne haughtily treats Laramie like a lowly servant. However, Laramie is the only person in the group who will stand up to Daphne and tell her what he thinks of her. He also exposes some of her lies. Laramie’s acidic comments are the closest that “The Daphne Project” comes to being funny, but Laramie’s arrival is so late in the movie, his presence can’t save this rambling mess.

For any mockumentary to work well, it has to have characters that viewers will be engaged in watching, even if those characters are supposed to be unlikable. When a mockumentary has too many forgettable characters or characters that don’t have compelling personalities, that mockumentary is already doomed to fail. Unfortunately, that’s a big problem with “The Daphne Project,” which makes the title character an overwhelming annoyance and everyone else just hollow, underdeveloped characters that buzz around her like pesky insects.

Another big flaw that some mockumentaries have is dialogue that looks too rehearsed. That’s why the best mockumentaries have dialogue that’s mostly improvised. All the cast members in “The Daphne Project” look like they’re reciting scripted lines and are trying too hard to be funny. It’s the opposite of what mockumentaries are supposed to look like.

“The Daphne Project” (which has some very uneven and distracting sound mixing) also seems very confused about what it wants to accomplish with the Daphne character. For most of the movie, Daphne is presented as an anti-hero whom audiences are supposed to love to hate. But then by the last third of the film, certain things happen that completely undermine those intentions and ruin the movie. It’s an abrupt switch that looks poorly conceived, very inauthentic and competely unearned.

“The Daphne Project” is writer/director Tibaldi’s second feature film and Crews’ first feature film as an actress, writer and director. Even though everything about this amateurish movie looks like something from a film school, you don’t have to go to film school to be a good filmmaker. However, the filmmakers of “The Daphne Project” would benefit from studying more closely the best movies in whatever genres interest them, because these filmmakers have got a lot to learn about filmmaking.

Mailuki Films released “The Daphne Project” in New York City on July 22, 2022. Fuse+ will premiere the movie on August 16, 2022.

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