Keith Josef Adkins’ “The Abandon” asks, “What happens when we discover we don’t know our friends so well after all?”
At the start of Keith Josef Adkins’ short film “The Abandon,” five Black men are on an annual hiking trip.
The film seems to be a straightforward bro-comedy at its outset — that is, until inexplicable events start to take place. Take, for instance, the blinding light that flashes as the four men — Kendall (Sterling K. Brown), Dennis (Morocco Omari), Craig (Jordan Mahome) and Aaron (Jaime Lincoln Smith) — drive to meet their friend, Jeff (Billy Eugene Jones), who has already arrived at their campsite.
In a literal sense, “The Abandon” is about a post-apocalyptic emergency that menaces the lives of the four friends. But scarier than the mysterious enemy that follows the men is the threat of the dissolution of the safety of friendship. What happens when we discover we don’t know our friends so well after all?
Watching the film, I think about how male friendships can seem close and distant at the same time. The conversations among the men of “The Abandon” are briskly paced, full of banter, insult and braggadocio. There’s something comfortable and familiar about their rapport, about the way they express closeness through dismissive criticism. As we watch, however, the men’s friendships feel more and more tenuous. Secrets unearth themselves, and the sense of intimacy between them at the film’s outset is continually undermined by their passive aggression about unstated interpersonal grievances.
“The Abandon” casts the idea of friendly allegiance as being potentially problematic, emphasizing the times when friendship brings out the worst in us. It relies on simmering, interpersonal grudges. Rather than explore those grudges directly, Adkins employs the supernatural to portray the precarious emotional undertones of men’s relationships with each other.
Adkins’ short posits that more interesting than the question, “What are we willing to sacrifice to maintain our friendships?” is “What aren’t we willing to sacrifice?” Each year, the men leave the city together. They go to the woods without significant others, cell phones, alcohol or drugs as a way of ritualistically abandoning their lives and of strengthening their bonds with one another. Their friendship is based on this ritualistic exclusivity, a kind of platonic polyfidelity. That Kendall brings his phone along with him, then, refusing to fully abandon his life for the sake of the brotherhood, is a betrayal of the implicit rules of their friendship. Kendall seems to be perpetually at odds with the others. He is the outcast of the bunch.
Not only is Kendall’s insistence on bringing his phone on the trip a betrayal, but it’s also emasculating, according to his friends. He uses his phone to check his ex-wife Asha’s Twitter account, which the men chide him about. That Kendall would want to have a continuing emotional connection to Asha is a sign that he feels too much, too deeply or simply feels the wrong things. He doesn’t quite fit the archetype of Black masculinity that his friends establish amongst themselves. In a later moment of panic, though, the team relies on Kendall’s phone — and on Asha’s Twitter updates — to figure out what’s happening around them. Kendall’s hysterical qualities, in other words (the same qualities that cause him to hold onto his relationship with his ex-wife) come in handy. His emotional attachment to a network of relationships that extends beyond his immediate brotherhood are what make him, in the end, stronger than his friends give him credit for.
Kendall feels too deeply not just about the women in his life, but also about his encounters with police. As Kendall, from the backseat of the car, confides that he was stopped by the police on a recent jog, none of his friends take the incident seriously. They assure Kendall that the police officer was just doing his job. That the men work as attorneys — though Kendall is currently unemployed — is a plot point that confounds the story. Kendall’s entwinement with the government as a state agent takes his recent encounter outside of a familiar police brutality narrative. Rather than a conflict between the white supremacist state and its Black subjects, we see a sort of “marital” dispute play out instead; that is, conflict among state actors about the legitimacy of the state itself. The extent to which the men seemingly give their allegiance to the law and its enforcers disrupts what’s expected of the friend group. I have to assume their trust, and active participation, in the American judicial system is meant to add absurdist complexity to the narrative.
Adkins makes it hard to tell which of these state agents is more naïve: Is it Kendall for complaining about his police encounter or his friends for believing the encounter was innocent, not as dangerous as Kendall seems to think? It’s hard to know, as a viewer, in whom to place one’s trust. This destabilization of the viewer’s trust in the film’s central actors further distinguishes “The Abandon” from a traditional bro-comedy, where the idea is for the viewer to bond with and grow fonder of its primary characters. In these works, the audience is meant to watch excitedly, and uncomplicatedly, along as the group endures a series of shenanigans. But in “The Abandon,” without being able to trust each character’s motives, as viewers, and without being able to trust in the men’s friendships with each other, it’s hard to feel optimistic about the group’s potential to handle the apocalyptic spectacles they meet.