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Sydney Sweeney’s ‘Reality’ Performance Is More Than Your Average De-Glam

The Big Picture

  • Sydney Sweeney’s performance in
    Reality
    showcases her impeccable control and range as an actor.
  • De-glamorizing can be risky for A-list stars, but Sweeney rises to the challenge of portraying Reality Winner authentically.
  • Sweeney’s finely calibrated micro-expressions and subtle shifts in voice and posture add depth to her portrayal of Reality’s creeping dread and defiance.



Beyond just her outstanding performance in the titular role, Reality is a great career move for Sydney Sweeney in that it shows a new side of the actress. In contrast to the glitzy HBO shows Euphoria and The White Lotus that put her on our radar, as well as high-profile movie roles in Madame Web and the rom-com Anyone But You, Reality is an austere, understated political drama that allows Sweeney to make use of a different skill set. Based on the true story of Reality Winner, an Air Force veteran and contracted translator who leaked a classified document confirming attempted Russian interference in the 2016 election, Reality dramatizes the young woman’s arrest, following the actual FBI transcript to the letter. It’s an ambitious, inventive debut from Tina Satter (adapting her play, Is This A Room?, for the screen), and it provides an irresistible challenge for someone like Sweeney.


Though she may demur at the label, it’s hard to deny that Sweeney is a star with a capital S. She could have walked into Hollywood at any point in the past hundred years and come away a star. But Reality doesn’t need her to be a star: it needs her to be Reality Winner, a woman who the film defines by her sheer ordinariness as much as by her extraordinary actions. She cares for a nervous foster dog and a carb-obsessed cat, she does CrossFit, she maintains an Instagram account where she posts photos of vegan meals and vacations to Belize. And when two FBI agents (Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis) knock on her car window after she pulls into her driveway, she can only watch as that ordinary life starts to crumble around her.


Reality Film Poster

Reality

A former American intelligence specialist was given the longest sentence for the unauthorized release of government information to the media about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections via an email operation.

Release Date
May 29, 2023

Director
Tina Satter

Runtime
83 minutes

Main Genre
Drama


Hollywood Stars De-Glamorizing Can Be Risky

There is, of course, a long tradition of A-list stars purposefully de-glamorizing themselves to demonstrate their range. Sometimes, as with Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, they set out to make themselves grotesque; other times, they just set out to embody a realistic, average-looking person in contrast with their star persona, as with Mariah Carey in Precious. Perhaps the most successful example of de-glamorization is Charlize Theron in Patty JenkinsMonster, in which Theron gained weight and wore prosthetics to embody the haggard-looking serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The resulting performance earned raves across the board, and she ended up winning an Oscar.


At the same time, however, doing this can reveal that a star is, well, just a star: someone who can carry a tentpole blockbuster or a musical for teenagers, but lacks the actor-ly rigor to carry a more grounded film. Tom Holland makes for a fine Spider-Man, but he feels jarringly out of place as a desperate, drug-addicted bank robber in Cherry. Vanessa Hudgens made a valiant effort as a homeless teenager in Gimme Shelter, but never quite stuck the landing. This isn’t to suggest that either of these performers are talentless hacks, as stardom is itself a sort of talent (or at least a gift). But it’s a reminder that these sorts of performances can show an actor’s limitations as easily as their range.

Sydney Sweeney Has Immense Control in ‘Reality’


Luckily for her (and for us), Sydney Sweeney more than rises to the challenge. Sporting spots of acne and a slightly unflattering haircut, her appearance as Reality Winner is far removed from the likes of Cassie Howard or Olivia Mossbacher, but her performance goes far below the surface. The script, which includes every stray cough and stammer from the FBI transcript, calls for an ultra-precise performance, and that’s exactly what Sweeney gives: a performance of finely calibrated micro-expressions, subtle shifts in her voice and posture, and a sense of creeping dread that eventually swallows her whole. It’s the sort of performance that could be easily described as a “masterclass,” if that word hadn’t already been driven into the ground.


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The ‘Anyone But You’ and ‘Madame Web’ star had a lot on the line personally and professionally when this audition came her way.


Reality may have done something impulsive (or “made a mistake” as the FBI agents interrogating her put it) in an attempt to lower her defenses, but she’s far from stupid. She’s worked with the government for long enough to know that, if FBI agents show up at your house with a search warrant, they almost certainly have everything they need to arrest you. She plays it cool (for the most part) and Sweeney’s performance as Reality is convincing enough that one could easily think she was innocent if they knew nothing else about the case. When Garrick tells her they’re investigating a case of mishandling classified information, her “oh my goodness, okay” hits the precise balance of casual, “worried but not suspiciously worried” alarm, and she makes polite small talk with the agents about her foster dog and personal powerlifting record. But the entire time, her eyes never quite go soft. They’re big, round, and perceptive, studying the various signs of danger: the way Taylor suddenly hardens his tone when she reaches for her phone too quickly, the half-dozen men crowded in her kitchen, and registering the fact that her back has been against the wall from the get-go.


Soon enough, she’s taken to a dingy, furniture-less backroom of her house, and her back is quite literally against the wall as Garrick and Taylor interrogate her. Her posture and demeanor are, understandably, tense, but Sweeney skillfully modulates the exact nature of that tension. At first, it’s a defense mechanism, with Reality doing her best to dance around the questions and confessing to lesser crimes. She knows that these agents aren’t who they present themselves to be, and she’s willing to match them by presenting a full-body poker face. But Reality’s just delaying the inevitable. Perhaps that’s why, when the shoe finally drops and the initial shock wears off, Sweeney lends her confession some slight defiance. “Why do I have this job if I’m just going to sit back and be helpless?” It’s the closest Reality (or the audience) gets to catharsis, and Sweeney makes it sing.


Reality is available to watch on Max in the U.S.


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