Lizzy’s life is tainted with boredom and aimlessness. She has an interesting hobby though—to fight her monotonous routine, she crossdresses as a cowboy and robs banks. Inspired by the real life and crimes of Peggy Jo Tallas, writer/director Pete Lee invites us into both sides of Lizzy’s life, the glamorous, and the soul-crushing, in a short film that hooks its audience beyond simply its premise via beautiful craft, and a remarkable lead performance from Missi Pyle.
Despite the fact that he is not a middle aged white woman living in Texas who occasionally robs banks, Tallas’ remarkable story resonated with Lee, and his fascination turned into a feature film script. But time was running out to make something from it—Lee’s Bay-area based filmmaker collective was about to split apart, as the challenges of creating art in a rapidly gentrifying city was forcing many to relocate. Racing against the clock, Lee saw the film as a swan song for the group and changed the project into a fifteen page screenplay. Shot in four days, with a low budget, Lee focused on the essence of the story.
The diametrically opposed facets of the lead character is what makes the film powerful and effective, and this is established in both the script and the look of the film. Cinematographer Drew Daniels (known for S/W faves like Thunder Road, Dan Miller, and Men Don’t Whisper), managed to procure anamorphic lenses from Panavision, but only for a limited time, which prompted Lee to make the decision to play with the aspect ratio in order to emphasize the two different worlds his main character lives in. As a cowboy, Lizzy is free, liberated and feels alive—visually these scenes are extremely cinematic, with beautiful camera movement and a cool soundtrack. This is in contrast to her scenes as her regular self, where her boredom, loneliness and passivity are visually translated by a framing style that is unconventional for a lead—where she is barely in focus, and feels out of the center of her own life.
The whole cast brings the funny and touching screenplay to life, but Missi Pyle definitely nails the layers of her flawed character with few words. The transitions between her two personas feel seamless while at the same time constructing two completely different sets of behaviors. As the film progresses, it keeps on having a deeper and more compelling meaning. Her portrayal of her normal life is endearing and authentic, ultimately making her wild and crazy choice of side activities believable as the only escape. The audience is quickly very tempted to condone it, and at the very least can’t help but be entertained.
Don’t Be a Hero premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and went to be selected at prestigious festivals including SXSW ahead of its online release as a Vimeo Staff Pick. Pete Lee is already working on various projects including an episodic version of the film, and is currently at the writing stage of his first feature length film about a middle aged fake exorcist battling real demons in Chinatown.