One of the most visually and artistically exciting documentaries I've seen at this year's Sundance Film Festival -- or outside of Sundance in the past few years, frankly -- Protagonist is hard to define and easy to enjoy, seemingly scatter-shot but possessed by pure focus, full of invention and newness, but also firmly committed to sure-handed storytelling and classic tradition. Director Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the Unreal) was asked to create a documentary about the Greek dramatist Euripides; what she wound up doing was creating a documentary about the real-life journeys of four men that illustrate the themes of Euripides' ancient ideas about drama while speaking to the conflicts and challenges of our modern age. Protagonist is, at heart, a film about how story itself has a kind of DNA -- and how the ideas of storytelling replicate themselves, in that each of these subjects hears stories that help create who they are, and their stories reflect and reproduce those ideas in the stories they themselves tell.
A young man becomes obsessed with the TV show Kung Fu, which leads to his becoming a martial artist; later, Mark Saltzman realizes his pursuit of a myth has real-life consequences. Another boy is told he's powerless, weak, worthy of abuse; Joe Loya's desire to re-write that story leads him to embrace a life of crime as a bank robber. After a childhood of repression, a German youth becomes a committed social revolutionary; Hans-Joachim Klein later realizes he's become a lethal pawn for forces that want to exploit his principles. Finally, a boy in a fiercely Christian home tries to ignore his homosexual desires by proselytizing against the gay community as a man; eventually, Mark Pierpont has to try to reconcile his learned beliefs with his essential nature.