By Mike Manning | Drama
A man gives a woman a ride to a party. But the evening falls short of his expectations.

Darren has agreed to give Irene a ride to a birthday party they’re attending together. The two met earlier at another birthday party, but Irene doesn’t remember him. Darren, though, seems to have a crush on Irene and is excited to have an opportunity to talk to her more.

But as the conversation progresses, Irene subtly fends off Darren’s attempts to insinuate himself with her. Their interaction is tense as Darren lashes out, but Irene quickly leaves Darren behind at the bar. Seething from his rejection, Darren attempts to connect with other women, but a small but biting series of rebuffs pushes him to the brink.

Tense and menacing in its intimacy and careful attention, this short drama — co-written and directed by Mike Manning and co-written by Tom Anderson — is undeniably topical, but it escapes the traps of being an “issue” film with a deft, complex portrayal of how insecurity and entitlement intertwine with one another to form a toxic combination.

Taking place initially in a car, the storytelling takes advantage of the cloistered setting to set up an atmosphere of sinister claustrophobia, with its noirish visuals and ominous ambient score. It builds up the suspense early on, creating a dramatic tension whose fulcrum is constructed less on surprise and more on dread: how will Darren act out, especially as Irene continually distances herself from him and he reveals his character more fully?

The action, though, progresses in an unexpected way, which is a testament to its solid writing, which consistently makes choices that are true to the characters. The cast is excellent overall, led by Academy Award nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes as Irene. (Castle-Hughes is also a co-producer on the film.) Actor John Bain as Darren, though, has the tricky emotional arc of portraying Darren, nailing both his grating insecurity and the way his anger feeds into a hostile manner.

And yet viewers also see his blind spots, and how his insecurity and entitlement keep him from connecting with anyone around him, much less women. Darren emerges as his own worst enemy, and yet is prone to blaming the world and women around him. As Darren’s insecurity and growing irritation seem to spread like a virus in the storyline, he attempts to salvage the night: he hits on other women, gets jostled about the bar and generally deals with a build-up of anger.

What he does with this build-up is the ultimate question in “Toxic,” and the ending is perhaps ambiguous on this point, and also undeniably uneasy, especially given the film’s small but pointed attention to signs of what is now called “toxic masculinity” in the world around Darren. The ending feels very much like the deep inhale before decisive action. We don’t quite know what it is, but we do know Darren is a bomb waiting to go off, both against himself and other people. How and when he will explode is the question, but it feels inevitable — which in itself is haunting, disquieting and unnerving to consider.

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