(director/writer: Vera Drew; screenwriter: Bri LeRose; cinematographer: Nate Cornett; editor: Vera Drew; music: Justin Kroi, Quinn Scharber, Danni Rowan; cast: Vera Drew (Joker the Harlequin), Nathan Faustyn (Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin), Kane Distler (Mr. J), Lynn Downey (Joker’s Mother), David Liebe Hart (Ra’s al Ghul), Cricket Arrison (The Creeper), Griffin Kramer (Young Joker), Maria Bamford (voice-Lorne Michaels), Phil Braun (voice-Batman), Rome L. Davis (Social Worker), Tim Heidecker (voice-Perry White), Daniela Baker (Catwoman), Christian Calloway (Dr. Crane), Trevor Drinkwater (The Riddler), Ruin Carroll (voice-Poison Ivy), Dan Curry (Bane), Robert Wuhl (himself), Denali Winter (Clark Kent), Bambi Bell (Lois Lane), Bo b Odenkirk (voice-Bob the Goon), Scott Aukerman (voice-Mr. Freeze); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Joey Lyons; Altered Innocence; 2022)  

“A winsome, audacious and unique homage superhero film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s the first timer Vera Drew’s feature film directorial effort, that she also writes, edits and stars in. It’s a bold  response to the superhero movie genre, in the form of a semi-autobiographical DC Comics parody and journey for gender identity that’s taken by Vera’s lead character Joker the Harlequin. It blends together live action and animation, in a rousing personal story.

Vera’s film is a freestanding parody of Todd Phillips’s 2019 “Joker.” This film relies on familiar superhero characters to tell a playful, insightful and critical story that’s not concerned with what the comic-book franchise might think about it. It relegates Batman to be a fascist-like superhero, who keeps Gotham as a place where people who are not towing the line in check. Thereby Joker will eventually be pitted against Batman.

Vera and co-writer Bri LeRose, hand in a subversive and richly emotional screenplay, one that combines parody, satire, camp, dark comedy, psychological drama and surrealism into an impactful trans coming-of-age film that’s told in flashbacks.

It takes us back to Smallville, Kansas, where the future Joker is an unhappy youngster (Griffin Kramer) who tells her depressed mom (Lynn Downey) that she might be in the wrong body, being raised as a boy yet feeling like a girl. This revelation causes a visit to the local Arkham Asylum to see the cruel, insensitive and repugnant Dr. Crane (Christian Calloway), who puts the youngster through an experimental treatment program and prescribes that the “sad child” take Smylex to provide an artificial grin when using the prescribed inhaler (giving everyone the false impression that everything’s right with him).

Though stuck living in the uptight conservative community, the confused child envisions a wider world by watching comedy programs on “trash TV.” In particular a program called “UCB Live” that originates from Gotham City, the big city, where its producer Lorne Michaels (voiced by Maria Bamford) runs the show’s comedy-training institution, the United Clown Bureau, an improv school that provides the Saturday-night broadcast with its cast and its acronym—the Upright Citizens Brigade. The kid 15-years later flees her hometown to be part of the big city’s expanding comedy scene.

But the Queebso-authorized UCB school is rigid about casting men as Jokers and women in the supporting roles of Harlequins (merely background dancers), which leaves no place for the trans girl to be the Joker on the TV show.

To get into the restricted field of improv comedy, the kid invents something called anti-comedy, and rents a warehouse to bring it to fruition by coming out as trans and taking the liberating name of Joker the Harlequin.

Joker the Harlequin partners with her friend, the unemployed closeted gay comedian, Penguin (Nathan Faustyn), to form the anti-comedy group for others who cannot be part of the comedy group.

Joker also entertains a romance with the trans man Mr. J (Kane Distler), until it becomes too toxic.

Filled with references to DC Comics and affection for the superhero characters it spoofs, the low-budget fantasy film will have its protagonist go public as a trans female. She becomes in the comic book world a success as Joker the Harlequin.

The People’s Joker tells us a story that is enlightening and dark at times, making this a winsome, audacious and unique homage superhero film.

It played at the Toronto Film Festival.