‘Harley’ Tells the Uncomfortable Story of an Underdog We Can’t Root For (Tribeca 2020)

The tales of somewhat deluded real-life antiheroes have always been popular, but perhaps never more so than right now, as Tiger King continues to produce memes and fans and jokes about feeding husbands to tigers. The Tribeca documentary Harley, from director Jean-Cosme Delaloye, attempts to follow in the tradition of similar underdog stories of like American Movie that chronicle people with dreams (not always good ones) who believe in themselves more than the world might.

Harley focuses on Harley Breite, a criminal defense lawyer in Paterson, New Jersey, who makes a comfortable living defending the often indefensible. Harley seems to be a good lawyer, even if he doesn’t always win: he represents accused murderers and drug dealers, and has an easy rapport with his clients, declining to judge them based on their accused crimes (or even to ask them if they’re guilty or not). The relative amorality of his legal attitude is hardly unusual (everyone is entitled to legal defense, after all); more complicated is the other side of Harley, the one which the film chronicles closely and with varying degrees of comfort. Harley is obsessed with an unnamed woman, a Swiss model to whom he writes letters, provides trips to Portugal, and dreams about one day marrying. She’s got a boyfriend, though, and Harley openly states that he’s not in a relationship with her. But he hopes to be, by exercising, losing weight, and fighting an MMA match in Brazil. As the film covers this somewhat complicated, not always likable figure, one begins to wonder: just whose side are we on?

The problem with Harley is both in the way that the film presents its subject, and in the subject himself. Harley is sometimes likable, sometimes not, but his obsession with this woman becomes increasingly creepy as he wraps packages to her and writes her cards every day. The film never shows her (presumably she declined to be named or interviewed), and there’s no real indication as to why or how Harley thinks he can win her by fighting an MMA match. To his credit, he’s not really deluded, and openly admits that he wants to train for the fight more to prove he can do it to himself than to her. But his actions (or at least the film) consistently contradict this, as he talks about beating up her boyfriend, wears T-shirts that proudly proclaim “I Fuck Your Girlfriend,” and discusses her as an unattainable dream he nevertheless plans to somehow obtain. The other elements of the film, like Harley’s work as a defense lawyer, further complicate emotions – he defends a man accused of murdering a trans prostitute without caring about the man’s guilt, but also runs a charity for special needs people. He is obviously being used by a woman, but he seems to be aware of that, yet aggressively makes remarks about having sex with her in front of her boyfriend. His fight against unseen bullies is laudable, but he invents bullies for himself.

These complications develop an interesting picture, yet the film’s tone has an edge of sarcasm and even downright meanness in its representation. This is always one of the tensions in documentaries that cover underdogs and seem to indulge in a sort of voyeuristic fascination with their subjects: are we meant to laugh at him, or with him? This can come off as a celebration of weirdness, an embracing of the complexity of humanity, or as, essentially, a way of bullying and mocking people who are not quite typical. Unfortunately, and perhaps accidentally, Harley veers towards the latter, failing to present its subject as the lovable Don Quixote that the opening quote frames him as. Harley is deluded, yes, but he has a degree of clarity as well, an understanding that maybe he is deluded, and that doesn’t really matter. The added tension of his basic aggressiveness in terms of women – at one point he angrily relates childhood experiences of being bullied by girls that cast an unfortunate light on his more aggressive attitude vis-à-vis his not-quite-relationship with the Swiss model and her unseen boyfriend – begins to make Harley unpleasant to watch.

At the end of the day, viewers want to root for the underdog, but Harley makes it both very difficult to root for its protagonist, and uncomfortable not to root for him. Part of the point of Don Quixote is that he is deluded, but his delusions are epic ones, and in looking at a prostitute and seeing a chivalric maiden, he’s actually imagining her as she “really” is, rather than attempting to acquire her for what he wants her to be. Harley’s dream girl never appears; even based on what he says, she has no need for or interest in a Don Quixote.

Harley is now showing at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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