‘Us’ opens in 1986 on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. A young Adelaide (Madison Curry) is enjoying a night of boardwalk games with her parents. Her dad (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) wins her a Thriller T-shirt and she’s got her little hand clasped firmly around the stick of a perfectly red candy apple. As Adelaide and her parents walk around, her father notices a whack-a-mole game. Excited, he hands over a few dollars for a mallet. Adelaide’s mother (Anna Diop) is hesitant to leave her daughter with her preoccupied father, even for an urgent bathroom break, but she’s got to go. While her mother’s gone, Adelaide does exactly as she was told not to do and wanders away. She heads off the boardwalk and onto the empty and dark beach. While she’s walking around, she notices a house of mirrors. The carnival-like attraction is called Vision Quest and the flickering sign is too much for little Adelaide to resist, so she drops her candy apple into the sand and walks in completely transfixed. Inside, she’s more scared than excited. It’s dark, there are awful animatronic birds hunting for cheap jump scares and then, in an instant, she’s lost. The lights go out and Adelaide realizes she can’t find the exit. She’s scared but outright terror finds her when she runs into what appears to be her own reflection, which is facing the wrong direction. It’s almost instantly clear to Adelaide that what she’s looking at isn’t just a reflection but a real person. When that person turns around, however, she realizes the girl she’s looking at looks exactly like her. They’re identical.
Adelaide is stunned and incapable of dealing with what she’s seen so she goes silent for a long time. Unable or unwilling to speak, her parents take her to a doctor who suggests they help the little girl find a new outlet for expression. It takes her a while to figure it out but ultimately, dance becomes that outlet. After a creepy set of opening credits, we meet back up with Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family. She’s the mom now and they’re driving around in the mountains, heading to their vacation house. The Santa Cruz beach isn’t but a short drive from their place, so they meet their best frenemies for a day on the sand. The boardwalk is of course nearby and Adelaide worries about that. She gets the feeling whatever started back in 1986 isn’t done yet. Those fears are confirmed later when a family shows up in the driveway of their glass vacation house in the middle of the night. Did I mention the lights have gone out, the cops are 16 minutes away and they don’t have a generator like their frenemies, the Tylers? ‘Us’ is an exercise in tension and stress. By the time its over, we’re facing some difficult realities, en masse. And honestly, what better way to make a person sweat?
‘Us’ is a whole lot of story. There are lots of moving parts. Some of them were lost on me, others noted for further discussion. All of them helped to grab onto my mind and hold it hostage for a couple of hours, which is no easy feat in this time of overstimulation and excess information. The thing about a Jordan Peele (Director) experience is that you’re going to get lost somewhere. Me, I got lost in the details. Is this movie a statement about the duplicitous nature of us as a nation? Is it about the haves and the have nots, a statement on classism? Is it a statement about racism and how we we’re supposed to melt together but can’t because we’re so hung up on our differences? Is this movie trying to tell me something about coincidences? In short, yes.
When the movie was over, I had more questions than answers. What I know for sure is that Lupita Nyoung’o is outstanding as both adult Adelaide and her doppelgänger, Red. She fully comes across as two separate individuals and gives both Adelaide and Red a depth that isn’t necessarily established through the story. Red is barely human but Nyong’o forces a connection and draws out an empathy that comes in handy toward the end of the movie. As Adelaide she’s vulnerable, guarded, and anxious. She’s overwhelmed and maybe even a bit frazzled. She’s all of us when we catch a bad feeling and can’t let it go.
Winston Duke as Adelaide’s husband Gabe provides the comic relief throughout. Duke proves to be incredibly charismatic and a welcome respite from the tension-soaked storyline. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex play Zora and Jason, the Wilson’s kids. They’re a pair of typical American kids until they aren’t. All three work together to establish a safe and familiar environment that they excitedly rip out from under you the moment they appear on screen as their others. Both young actors maximize the physicality of their roles to amplify the unnerving aspect of the story. Together, all three breathe enough creepiness into their respective doppelgängers that they take the movie from creepy to scary. And then there’s Elizabeth Moss who goes from mildly annoying to absolutely terrifying in one scene. She’s not on screen much but what’s there is impeccable.
‘Us’ puts you in a vice grip from jump. In my theater, everyone got so stressed out they had no option but to giggle nervously to let off steam. They knew swearing loudly or screaming incessantly would be frowned upon and might even get them kicked out. They wanted to see how this movie would play out. We all did, so we all giggled to release and then tensed up again even tighter, waiting anxiously to see which character would survive Jordan Peele’s brand of reckoning. Once that tension gets to building, it never really stops. It’s hard on the nerves but so much fun in the process. Ultimately though, I wasn’t sure if Peele intended on so much of the story being left open-ended. Nevertheless, tension and fear are what I go looking for when I want a good scare and ‘Us’ has plenty of both. The unease is delicious, and it lingers long after the credits roll.