Each year, SXSW Film gives press in attendance access to their screeners library, where filmmakers are able to upload their films so you can catch their work even if you missed it at the festival. The library is usually full of the short films from the festival and this year was no exception so we’ve decided to examine some of them for you. Mason Walker kicks things off with a look at two youth oriented shorts from SXSW: Share, which won this year’s Special Jury Recognition for Narrative Short award, and Bag Man, a creative, sci-fi tinged adolescent narrative.
Directed by: Pippa Bianco
Starring: Taissa Farmiga, Keir Gilchrist
This film depends on lips and thumbs. If this sounds strange (it does), then take a moment to consider Share’s subject: a high school sex scandal in the 21st century. As you watch the film, you come to realize that such scandals are, more often than not, centered around those body parts. The thumbs spread and address rumours via language-mangling text messages; the lips spew hallway gossip, or, in the case of the victims, bite back bile and tears. In the information age, thumbs open the wounds, and lips salt or salve them. Usually the former.
This knowing anatomical focus is one of the many savvy stylistic choices made by writer/director Pippa Bianco, who has created a modest mood piece that stayed alight in my mind for longer than I’d thought it would. Those two statements are not unconnected, for what makes the film worthwhile is its modesty, its heartening refusal to be anything more than it is. This film is about what it feels like to find out that you were assaulted at a party, and that you were videotaped while you were violated. Period. No big political statement. No broader exploration of high school life. Share cares only about what’s going on inside the mind of Krystal (Taissa Farmiga). About canvassing the contours of her private hell. About chronicling the godless torrent of sensations that greet a young girl made suddenly vulnerable. In many ways, said chronicling is a success.
The film’s opening moments play a crucial part in that success. When we first meet Krystal, her face is in hazy focus, and the camera is softly bobbing toward and away from it. All that we can hear is her routine breathing and the muffled hum of a dull sitcom in the doldrums of nighttime TV. Then she leans forward, grasps for the remote, and snatches her lit-up phone. The camera locks onto her body and snaps into focus. Just like Krystal, we’ve undergone a split-second journey from boredom to nervous attention. In this moment, Bianco has already prepared us for a film that eschews conventional plotting and sticks us inside of its heroine’s sensory experiences.
From that opening shot, the film, for the most part, stays the course; it rarely lets us out of Krystal’s shoes. By manipulating sound and image, Bianco shows us how the trauma of sexual assault and public humiliation can make a mundane school-day come horribly alive. A gaggle of chatty schoolgirls are now a blood-hungry Hydra. A classmate gnawing on his pencil is now a fanged wildling asserting carnal dominance. And, worst of all, the sound of every fresh text is now a lick-of-flame from the pit-of-hell. Will the latest message contain shame, blame, or yet another pixelated recapitulation of last night’s nightmare? In moments like these, we come to see how sexual assault is as much a mental violation as it is a physical one.
These primal feelings are conveyed by way of solid technique. Ava Berkovfsky’s camera accesses the shifting focus of an anxious mind—even if said camera does shake a little too much for my weak-stomached taste. And Oliver Harwood’s editing lingers just long enough to catch some of Taissa Farmiga’s most chilling facial expressions. Farmiga’s performance has many good qualities, but it’s even more notable for what it lacks—namely, artifice. She never overplays Krystal’s trauma. Instead, she understands that, like many a high school girl, Krystal is trying to hide it—even if the hiding only makes it shine through with terrible transparency.
The film does have its flaws. For all its focus, it does toy with a few needless diversions, and its attempts to provide a portrait of Krystal’s California environment sometimes come off like Sofia Coppola-lite. But in the end, I appreciate Share because it gives us the opportunity to learn more about sexual violence, and and also because the chance visit an well-constructed inferno: a land where lips and thumbs do their best, but where nothing said or unsaid brings healing.
Directed by: Jonathan and Josh Baker
Starring: Judah Bellamy
After I finished Bag Man I remarked to a friend that it seemed incomplete. That’s because it is. When I pulled up the film’s website to double-check a casting credit, I came upon this message from the film’s directors, Jonathan and Josh Baker:
Like two excited children, we wait patiently for the opportunity to turn this short story into a full length feature film. Quiet, character-driven, with more than a small dose of sci-fi. Let us know if this is something you’d like to see.
In other words: We’d like to show you the fresco, but first here’s the sketchbook.
That sketchbook follows a day in the life of a 12-year-old black boy (Judah Bellamy), who travels to upstate New York clutching the titular bag, and, as a result, finds himself in a world of otherworldly trouble. Some of those sketches are frustrating, as you’ll soon see, but others are deft and intriguing. When the film’s at its best, you get the vague sense that there’s some kind of genuine vision taking shape, some invigorating blend of realism, pastoralism, and Afro-Futurism that’s all the more absorbing for its lack of flashy self-consciousness. Whether dealing with an urban close-up or a sci-fi wide-shot, the Brothers Baker lens everything with a hushed formalism that seems to say: “Of course this is how the world is. Why would it be any different?” One of the picture’s most appealing qualities is its calm world-builder’s confidence.
That confidence is especially refreshing in a film that draws so heavily on frequently insecure genres: indie “realism” too often shuffles around with its hands in its pockets (Boyhood, anyone?), and sci-fi is usually way too eager to whip out its intergalactic dick and show off. So give due credit to the Bakers, and to Nicolas Karakatsanis for his tasteful cinematography. Give credit also to Legacy Effects, who render the sci-fi visuals with tactile grit. And give credit to the indie band Bird Courage, who provide an Small Movie Acoustic Score that is, blessedly, more Leonard Cohen than low-rent Marcus Mumford.
You’ll notice I’ve yet to mention the actors. That’s not because they’re bad; this is a capable cast, and Bellamy has exactly the sort of open-faced honesty that child-acting demands. But they’re limited by the film’s characterizations, which at times come dangerously close to an Achilles heel. Bag Man knows what it wants its characters to go and do, and it knows, for the mostpart, what kind of universe it wants them to do it in. But it doesn’t know how it wants to present them. Are these people archetypes, or are they…well, people? One minute, a group of gangsters seem like flesh-and-blood threats; the next, they’re puking up Paul Muni cliches left and right. In one scene, we’re supposed to be watching a boy with the bag; in the next, we’re supposed to be watching The Boy With The Bag. You can tell that the Bakers really want to make “character-driven sci-fi,” but you can also tell that they have yet to fully escape the sort of stock characters that so often plague the genre. As such, it’s easy to get caught up in the universe, but, unfortunately, hard to care very much about the people. Before they go finish their film, I’d recommend that the Bakers watch (or re-watch) something like Beasts Of The Southern Wild, which lent its characters a mythic dimension without stinting on their emotive depths.
Notice I say “before they go finish,” not “if they go finish.” That’s because Bag Man seems to me like the start of something highly original. “Let us know if this is something you’d like to see,” the Baker brothers say. Okay, I’ll let them know right here: Yes it is, guys. Now may God grant you the cash to stop sketching and start painting.
Mason Walker is a kazoo-bearing Jew who writes at his blog So Beautiful or So What when he isn’t visiting Loser City.