Don’t Be a Hero (Sundance)

By Pete Lee | Drama
A woman robs banks as a cowboy on her lunch break.

Middle-aged, frustrated and bored by life, Lizzy gets her kicks by crossdressing as a cowboy and robbing banks. In robber mode, she’s calm, cool and quietly commanding. But after the adrenaline of crime wears off, she’s still left with a dissatisfying and profoundly lonely life.

But one night after a heist, she sees a clerk from the bank at the bar and starts to make a connection, only to realize that despite her other persona, she’s still stuck with herself.

Writer-director Pete Lee’s remarkable dramatic short is based on the real-life criminal Peggy Jo Tallas, a fascinatingly soft-spoken Texas woman known by her friends and family for being sweet, friendly and easy to chat with. But Peggy’s double life was completely at odds with her daily persona, as she developed her bank-robbing skills, learned to get in and out of banks in under a minute and confounded the FBI, who had no idea at first that they were looking for a woman as their criminal mastermind.

The story takes this fascinating real-life inspiration and riffs upon it, becoming a compelling character portrait of how people compartmentalize themselves and their feelings, often in the face of daily lives that fail to give them outlets for their creativity, power or any sense of possibility. Lizzy lives with her mother, making for an often contentious dynamic. Her job is menial and unchallenging. Her romantic prospects are nil. There’s nothing with a sense of expansiveness in Lizzy’s life — except her criminal “hobby,” which exhilarates and thrills her.

The film’s visual style plays with this double-life dichotomy, shooting Lizzy-as-robber in a beautifully smooth, cinematic style with saturated, burnished colors and fluid, graceful movements. But outside of that, the cinematography changes, becomes gritty and almost harsh. The framing changes as well, rarely centering Lizzy in the frame, often visually marginalizing her in her own “real” life.

What also makes the double act work is the central performance of Missi Pyle as Lizzy, who captures both the quiet, powerful thrill of robbing banks and the dead weight of her daily life in a relatable, authentic way. Without saying as much, viewers can sense Lizzy’s sense of wildness and adventure buried underneath the dinginess of ordinary life, as well as the profound melancholy of being locked in an existence that doesn’t allow for any sense of freedom or liberation.

When Lizzy finally makes a genuine human connection, we sense the effort it takes to hide her neediness and desire. But her vulnerability seeps out anyway, helping viewers root for her and making for an ultimately heartbreaking encounter.

With its fascinating with the outlaw ethos and its attention to the details of ordinary existence, “Don’t Be a Hero” has a sense of stylishness and insouciant self-assurance that’s reminiscent of the great Hollywood cinema of the 70s, which often sought to explore the quiet anarchy, intensity and wildness of post-hippie America, as people sought to throw off lives of “quiet desperation.”

Lizzy’s way of fighting against the tide may be unconventional — and against the law — but by film’s end, it becomes understandable, especially in a world with so little room for authentic freedom. We all have a strong drive to find a place in life where we feel free enough to bring our fullest selves — a drive compelling enough to seek any way to express itself, no matter what.

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