From the opening seconds of a Black Lives Matter chalk-drawn symbol being purposely washed away in the street by the titular entitlement, Coke Daniels’ satirical thriller – at least we hope it’s satirical – Karen only dwindles in subtlety. The moniker on use has become a term used to describe middle-aged white women, usually blonde, who make solutions to other people’s situations her problem, even though she isn’t remotely affected. She became something of an unofficial “icon” during the BLM movement uprising – for all the wrong reasons, obviously – and it really isn’t entirely surprising to get some type of professionally filmed media focused on her archetype. Daniels’ film however feels more like a bad SNL sketch, where his intention of social commentary and his ability to execute genre thrills both woefully misguided.
Not blonde here, instead helming a dark brunette bob, the Karen of the title is Karen Drexler (Taryn Manning), a deceptively nice, entitled (wouldn’t you know it), white-suburb living mother who doesn’t take kindly to the fact that Imani (Jasmine Burke) and Malik (Cory Hardrict) have moved in next door; one guess as to what ethnicity they are. As the first black residents in the upscale neighbourhood, the loved-up couple weren’t expecting a welcome wagon reception, but they certainly weren’t anticipating the hostility either; “Wait a minute…we have a white entitled neighbour named…Karen?”, asks Imani, indicating that at least Daniels’ script intends to be knowingly aware.
Therein lies one of the many problems of Karen in that Daniels treats his characters and situations in a semi-comedic manner, but rarely they are genuinely funny. And when it does illicit laughter, it’s unintentional giggles at how over-the-top the personification of this Karen is. Not that the film was ever going to be kind to the archetype of her character, but she’s so intensely unlikable, so brutally passive aggressive and racist that there’s no redeeming factors to her, so any tension and depth is completely void. Imani and Malik were always going to be the characters we root for, but even the suggestion that they could be projecting could have helped Daniels’ film in feeling a little more fully formed.
But creating something of value is not Daniels’ modus operandi. Scenes of Karen calling the police on three young black men walking through the neighbourhood, despite one of them living near by, and her claiming “all lives matter” in a conversation of the hot button issue, before saying black people pull the “race card” whenever slavery is brought up and anyone who doesn’t like it can “go back” to Africa is the type of on-the-nose material the film seems to delight in indulging. In fairness, these are indeed issues and situations that occur with disturbing frequency. It’s the frank depiction that is the problem.
It’s the straightforwardness that stops the film from being the true satire it clearly wants to be. It’s difficult to not roll your eyes throughout and view the film as the potential so-bad-its-good cult-classic-in-waiting I feel Daniels hopes for it to be. There’s not an ounce of subtlety in the script, Manning’s performance is just a walking stereotype (though that doesn’t mean she doesn’t illicit some laughable reactions) and its eventual descent into a revenge-cum-home invasion thriller feels ironically both wildly out-of-place yet incredibly on brand for a film that delights in the ridiculous. As a satire, Karen has a few moments – however obvious they may be – that prove amusing, whether deliberate or not, but, unsurprisingly, overall this is just a quality-void “thriller” that wants to evoke a conversation but is most likely to render its audience unresponsive.
Karen is now available on VOD and screening in select theatres in North America. An Australian release is yet to be determined.