I wonder if, had Dear Dictator come out a decade ago, it would have some of the cultural cachet that Mean Girls does. It’s not quite as well constructed, nor as sharp, but its premise is so strange that it stands out from the countless other movies that deal with getting through high school and adolescence.
The film, directed by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, stars Odeya Rush as Tatiana Mills, a teenage girl who becomes pen pals and then friends with an infamous dictator. When her social studies teacher assigns her to write a letter to someone she admires, she writes to Anton Vincent (Michael Caine), telling her teacher that she “likes [Vincent’s] style.” Unbeknownst to anyone else, they actually begin to correspond, right up until Vincent is deposed and makes his escape to Tatiana’s garage. As he plots his reinstatement, he helps Tatiana stage her own “coup de Tatiana,” using his experience as a dictator to overthrow the popular girls at her school.
It should come as no surprise that the script was on the 2006 Black List of unproduced scripts. The brand of humor that runs through it all is a little outdated, from Tatiana’s use of “retarded” as a slur, to the way her school’s resident mean girls have branded themselves as “slushies,” a.k.a. “sluts and lushes.” (Unfortunately, “mean girl” meaning “girl on her phone a lot” isn’t a stereotype that has yet gone out of fashion, though I can’t help but feel it should.) But there’s a mean streak to it that’s completely its own, and also the best thing about it.
Lest we forget, Caine is playing a ruthless dictator, and one clearly modeled after Fidel Castro. According to the backstory that Addario and Syracuse, who also wrote the script, have given him, he’s a dictator who came into power as part of a colonialist regime, handed the reins by his father. It’s a neat way of explaining why Caine is the only white man in the sequences that take place prior to his ousting instead of completely fudging the film’s depiction of a British-Caribbean island nation, and also brings up some interesting questions about growth and displacement in how the film keeps trying to apply Vincent’s knowledge to Tatiana’s experience growing up. But it’s never explored—or at least not to any extent that proves meaningful.
The film excels when it actually does bother to be curious. The scene in which Vincent protests his use of torture and execution to Tatiana and her mother, Darlene (Katie Holmes), is one of the most interesting parts of the movie, but it’s glossed over too quickly as Darlene agrees—without much resistance—to let Vincent stay in their home. Then there’s Vincent waterboarding a man he suspects of being a government agent, which is played mostly as a sight gag rather than being addressed as one of the worst forms of torture. There’s even a subplot involving one of Tatiana’s classmates, and his near-suicidal panic when he goes against his religious father. But nothing comes of it. In other words, the filmmakers seem willing to toe the line, but stop just short of saying anything unique, or of value.
This is especially unfortunate, as well as something of a missed opportunity, given the political climate in which the film is being released. Dictatorial figures are front and center in the news, and there might have been something more to recommend in Dear Dictator had its script been just a little sharper. Even the lip service that Addario and Syracuse pay to other films hints at a darker movie, as they namedrop Mean Girls right next to Maniac Cop 2. But no such luck. Dear Dictator falls squarely into mediocre territory, with almost everything remaining at surface level. Beyond the aforementioned scenes, Vincent seems to be a dictator only in (former) title, and Tatiana’s status as a rebel is really only established by her platform combat boots.
That said, Dear Dictator also suffers from excess. There’s no need for the subplot about Darlene’s love life (her struggle as a single mom is compelling enough without throwing her affair with her married boss into the picture), or for putting Michael Caine through the “old person comedy” wringer by having him go through a makeover montage, wear silly graphic tees, and scoot around on a tricycle. The only reason that these scenes don’t completely fall flat is because Caine, Holmes, and Rush are admirably committed to the bit.
Rush is, without a doubt, a star. Most recently seen in Lady Bird, she’s terrific in Dear Dictator to a degree that almost makes it easy to forget the film’s failings. It’s difficult to capture the specific cocktail of anxiety and rebelliousness that defines being a teenager, but Rush does it with ease, offering up a solid protagonist whose worries aren’t about being liked (or rather, about being popular) and looking one way or another. Holmes and Caine are also good despite the material they've been saddled with.
It’s not too long before the movie morphs from a satire into a coming-of-age movie, its prickly and promising beginning ending up in anemic territory that feels more like a cop-out than anything else. The dynamic between a single mother and her daughter or a colonialist dictator and a high schooler are more interesting to me than discovering that the real solution to dictatorship was the friends we made along the way. There’s something sharper and smarter in Dear Dictator, but that ground is left regrettably unexplored; it’s a film that ultimately doesn’t live up to its premise. Going deeper would require considerably more guts.