What’s it about?: Choking Man is a psychological drama about Jorge, a young Ecuadorian immigrant with extreme social anxiety who works as a dishwasher in a Greek diner in Jamaica, Queens, New York. The story basically follows Jorge and his interactions with his diner co-workers, including an overbearing extroverted cook and a pretty Chinese waitress.
Official Site: http://www.chokingman.com/main.html
Behind the Scenes:
Choking Man was written and directed by Steve Barron, a former music video director who has directed big budget Hollywood movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (a personal childhood favorite of mine) and Coneheads.
The film stars Octavio Gómez Berríos as the “morbidly shy” dishwasher, Jorge. For much of the film, Octavio has an Anton Chigurh-like hairdo– before Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men. In an interview with efilmcritic.com, director Steve Barron said, “Jorge is based on some real loner characters I’ve known. Two in particular that have acute shyness to the core, unable to make eye-contact, extreme difficulty in functioning socially. I think almost everybody can relate to shyness to some extent.”
In an interview with Screen International, Barron revealed another unlikely source for Jorge’s character: Michael Jackson, whom he directed in the music video for “Billie Jean”. On Jackson, Barron said, “He was 21 years old, very shy. I’ve borrowed some of his behavior for the main character in this film.”
Rounding out the cast is a pre-Breaking Bad Aaron Paul as Jerry, a cook at the diner. He’s a different kind of cook than he played in Breaking Bad, but the character is actually pretty similar to the early version of Jesse Pinkman (minus the meth).
A clean-shaven Mandy Patinkin (pre-Homeland beard and post Princess Bride mustache) plays the owner of the Greek diner, Rick, who has a very thick accent.
Finally, Eugenia Yuan plays Amy, the cheerful Chinese waitress who forms a sort of love triangle with Jorge and Jerry.
Spoiler Alert: I’ll be breaking down specific scenes in Choking Man, so I’d suggest you watch the film before reading this section.
– One of the first things you notice about Jorge is his physical appearance. He wears a hat that helps hide his face, and he’s always looking down at the ground, unable to make eye contact with anyone. Most people with social anxiety, myself included, tend to do those same things when out in public. In addition to his appearance, director, Steve Barron, used lots of creative camera angles, including shots from Jorge’s perspective, to help convey his anxiety to the audience.
– When new waitress Amy arrives, the owner Rick introduces her to the rest of the diner crew— all except for Jorge, who keeps his back turned to her and continues cleaning the floor. He doesn’t even acknowledge her. Jorge is there, but he isn’t a part of the group like the other diner workers. It’s like they don’t even notice he’s there. I’ve felt the same way with various school and work groups. Jorge didn’t refuse to say hello to Amy because he was rude, but because he was too shy to.
– When Jerry (Aaron Paul) is first introduced, he is loud, extroverted, and abrasive. He makes fun of Jorge for being shy, and Amy stands up for him. Throughout my school years, I met lots of people like Jerry, who would mock my shyness, and I always felt embarrassed when a girl would have to come to defend me.
– In a later scene, while Jorge was busy staring at the titular “choking man” poster, Jerry sneaks up from behind and performs the Heimlich maneuver on him as a joke. Jorge feels really uncomfortable, whereas Jerry thinks they’re just playing around, having fun. I’ve had similar things happen to me in the past, where I’d feel overwhelmed when a schoolmate grabbed me, even though they were being friendly or playful.
– Jorge has a secret crush on Amy, and wants to ask her out, but he’s too shy to. Meanwhile, he has to watch Jerry hit on her in front of him and ask her out on a date like it’s nothing. Amy rejects Jerry, but it doesn’t phase him. I’ve been in the same exact situation before and have been envious of my extroverted schoolmates who could make picking up girls look so easy.
– Jorge wants to buy a red dragon statuette as a gift for Amy to show thanks for the Spanish newspaper she gave him, but when he tries to ask the shop’s owner how much the dragon costs, the owner mistakenly thinks he wants the red Elmo instead. Jorge tries to tell him the Elmo isn’t what he wants, but the owner is aggressive and does’t give Jorge a chance to speak. Eventually Jorge gives up and runs out of the store. I’ve had the same experience with overly aggressive extroverts, who I would feel like never gave me a chance to talk.
– When Rick leaves for vacation, he’s wearing a fancy hat, and the other workers in the diner remark about it. Rick asks Jorge to explain, as it’s a Panama hat from his home country of Ecuador. Jorge feels singled out in front of everyone in the diner and mumbles a one-word answer to end the conversation as quickly as possible. I’ve found myself in the same situation countless times, where I’ve been asked something and felt singled out in front of others. While I knew about the topic and could elaborate, my social anxiety prevented me from speaking, and I’d try to escape the social stage by ending the conversation with a one word answer.
– A random stranger in a subway station tries to talk to Jorge, but he ignores him and tries not to look at the man. Whenever a stranger approaches me and tries to talk, I do the same thing. Look away and try to ignore them.
– Jorge manages to give Amy the dragon statuette as a gift, but he’s still unable to talk to her or develop a relationship. Meanwhile, Jerry has no trouble talking to Amy and continues to hit on her and ask her out on dates. Jorge can tell that Amy is starting to fall for Jerry, and he grows frustrated. Many times in the past, I’ve seen other guys swoop in and “steal” the girl that I had a secret crush on. Then, like Jorge, I would start to resent the girl for dating the other guy, instead of me. If she could fall for a guy like that, then I shouldn’t have liked her in the first place. But the reality, for Jorge and I, is that all along, if we just would have taken action and asked the girl out, she probably would have chosen us over the other guy. But she can’t wait around forever for us to make the move.
– Amy asks Jorge to walk her to the subway one night after work, and he agrees, but along the way, he still can’t talk to her. She waves goodbye from across the platform, and Jorge hesitates at first, then keeps his arm down and meekly raises his hand to give a slight wave back. This felt familiar, as social anxiety goes beyond simply talking. Sometimes silent hand gestures feel just as awkward and anxiety-inducing as speaking.
– Jorge has a good-looking roommate who gives him advice, and — SPOILER ALERT— we later learn that he is not real. The roommate is basically a personification of Jorge’s subconscious, or the inner monologue that we all have with ourselves. His inner critic would sometimes be positive, but it also fed him the negative thoughts that fuel social anxiety. This may be the one aspect of social anxiety that I don’t think was portrayed very well in the film. When you are as mired in social anxiety as Jorge, you don’t have enough self-awareness to separate yourself from the thoughts of your inner critic. On the other hand, there’s no other way to portray that on film, other than voiceover, so I can understand the creative choice to use an “imaginary” actor to make it more visual. But as for the things his roommate/critic said, I thought it was a good representation of the thoughts of someone with social anxiety.
– Interspersed throughout the film are animated sequences that visualize Jorge’s imagination. Some viewers may assume Jorge never speaks because he is dumb, but these animated sequences show that he is full of vivid thoughts and ideas but is just too shy to share them out loud with other people. That’s a feeling I am all too familiar with. In the past, I would rather let people assume I was dumb and devoid of imagination, than share my ideas and risk rejection.
– In the climax of the movie, a customer in the diner starts choking on a fish bone in his soup. Everyone stares at him, unsure of what to do. Jorge knows exactly what to do because throughout the film, he’d spend his time in the kitchen staring at the “choking man” Heimlich maneuver poster while washing dishes. Yet Jorge stands in the kitchen, watching the man choke to death. I can understand how Jorge felt in that situation. It’s not that he didn’t care about the man. He knew what to do, and he wanted to help, but he was just too shy to step up and do anything. What if he did something wrong and killed the guy? Ultimately, Jorge found the courage to run over, perform the Heimlich, and save the man’s life. Jorge became the hero of the diner, but that’s not what he wanted. He couldn’t take the attention and ran out of the diner. I can relate to both Jorge’s initial hesitation and his ultimate action. I’ve never been in a life or death situation quite like that, but in other ways, I’ve had to force myself out of my comfort zone to help someone.
– In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, director Steve Barron talked about why he chose to make Choking Man, and his answer is also the ultimate moral of the film.
“Filmmaker: Finally, should a director always take risks?
Barron: There’s a quote by [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, the famous philosopher, and he said, “Always do what you’re afraid to do.” I only found that out later, but that’s what I was doing. Unless I was afraid of it, it wasn’t going to be any good, and I found the biggest risks I took — when I was really out there and on a limb with the things I did — those were the ones that were easily the best at the end of it.”
Jorge faced his fear when he decided to help save that man’s life. That’s how you beat social anxiety. You feel the fear, but do it anyway.
– As for the ending of the film — SUPER SPOILER ALERT — Jorge basically “kills” his “roommate,” or gets rid of his negative inner critic, and replaces him with a happy-looking paper mâché bunny rabbit, made from the newspaper Amy had given him. It’s a sign that, while he still has an inner critic— we all do— he has transformed his to be more positive. Some viewers may feel the ending was anti-climatic, but to me, it felt true. You don’t overcome social anxiety overnight. To have a climactic ending where Jorge suddenly has the courage to talk to Amy, ask her out, and live happily ever after, wouldn’t match the otherwise accurate portrayal of social anxiety throughout the film. Overcoming social anxiety takes a series of small steps, and Jorge made his first step by destroying his negative inner critic, but he still has a long way to go. I’m sure a lot of producers pushed director Steve Barron to include a fairy tale ending where Jorge and Amy get together, and I applaud Barron for sticking to his guns and choosing the ending he did.
Jerry to Jorge: “You know, I haven’t heard you say more than twelve different words since you’ve been here. I mean, what’s up with you?”
Jerry to Amy, on Jorge: “He should go to the shyness institute and get a degree.”
Rick, on the Heimlich sign: “After a while, you don’t see it. It’s anonymous. It’s good that Jorge was on hand, huh? He’s usually anonymous, too.”
Reviewing the Reviewers:
Choking Man on IMDb: 6.1/10
Choking Man on Rotten Tomatoes: 50% Critics, 38% Audience
In his review for the New York Times, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “Mr. Barron’s worst idea is Jorge’s roommate, an enigmatic Spanish speaker who keeps urging the hero toward violence. You keep expecting him to tell Jorge he has a beautiful mind and should join a fight club.”
SPOILER ALERT — Never mind the fact that Zoller Seitz failed to include a spoiler warning for that comment in his review, those aren’t apt film references, anyway. Jorge’s roommate is not some imaginary friend, who he thinks is real like in A Beautiful Mind or Fight Club, he’s more a personification of Jorge’s inner critic— The negative thoughts and self-talk that feed his social anxiety. And the roommate didn’t only urge him toward violence. He also fed Jorge good ideas, such as buying a gift for Amy.
Some reviewers like Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian didn’t even realize Jorge was suffering from social anxiety. In his one-star review, Bradshaw went so far as to mock Jorge, sarcastically writing, “Poor, poor him.” I mean, you don’t have to like the film, it’s certainly not for everybody, but Bradshaw totally missed the entire point of Choking Man.
Some reviewers missed the social anxiety angle and thought Jorge’s troubles simply stemmed from being a foreign-language speaking immigrant in a new country. While that may have contributed to Jorge’s social anxiety, his problems went much deeper. Choking Man is not just a story about immigrants struggling in America. Amy was a foreign-language speaking immigrant as well, yet she was talkative, happy, and thriving in the same environment. I imagine Jorge would have struggled with some of the same shyness and social anxiety in his homeland of Ecuador.
Other reviews may have recognized the social anxiety, but still missed the point of the film. The Sky review had this to say: “The character of Jorge is so cripplingly introverted that there’s nothing to latch on to.” What the reviewer missed is that Jorge’s crippling introversion itself is exactly what we’re meant to latch on to. Perhaps socially confident extrovert viewers of the film can’t relate at all to Jorge’s shyness and introversion and have no sympathy for him. If that’s the case, then I’d hate to know what those viewers would think of me.
I think Steve Barron said it best himself in his Filmmaker Magazine interview. “Somebody asked me after one of the screenings at Tribeca, “Why on earth did you do it about this character when there’s five other characters in the film that it should have been about?” I said, “That’s precisely why I did it, because I’ve seen films about those other characters, but I hadn’t seen this film.”
Crippling shyness and social anxiety is a real condition that deserves to be portrayed on screen as much as any other disease or disorder. You may think Barron failed in trying to make an extremely introverted character compelling, but he should be applauded for his attempt.
Perhaps the best review came from, not a critic, but a fellow filmmaker: Steven Soderbergh “Choking Man is everything an independent film should be.” I agree.
Steve Barron’s Choking Man is one of the most accurate portrayals of social anxiety that I have ever seen on film. Is it a perfect movie? No. But the fact that writer/director Steve Barron was able to create such a captivating film with a largely silent and introverted character at the center of it is a great achievement. While the movie may not be for everyone, it’s definitely worth seeing for anyone struggling with social anxiety or anyone who knows somebody else who is.
Choking Man as a film: 8/10
Choking Man as a portrayal of social anxiety: 9/10