SXSW ’11: Spotlight on Shorts – Narrative Shorts

With attention at film festivals is frequently showered on spotlight premieres, star-studded panels and beer-drenched parties, it’s often easy to forget the short film line-ups programmed throughout the festival.

At most film festivals, these carefully selected line-ups showcase short films from across the globe — featuring emerging talent who have something just as important to say as their feature-length counterparts but with a fraction of the time to say it. South by Southwest is no exception. This year the festival will feature eight different categories of short films — ranging from music videos to documentaries to films made by high school students to the always-popular selection of midnight shorts.

While its easy to fill your schedule with the red carpet premieres and the much-buzzed about indie films that have already made their mark at other film festivals, this year don’t ignore South by Southwest’s selection of short films.

Here are a few selections from this year’s line-up:

NARRATIVE SHORTS 1

The Announcement

Joshua Funk, a member of the legendary Second City comedy group, directs this short yet very funny film about a woman reporting to her friends after a particularly memorable date. The women in the short go all out — throwing their all into a lively display of physical comedy — and it pays off greatly. The short is very funny and a great addition to the programing block.

Howling at the Moon

Directors Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims previously screened their short documentary Thompson at the 2009 SXSW film festival. With a background in docs, it’s no surprise that the duo’s first stab at a narrative short has such a natural feel to it. The film, which follows two co-workers who spend the night trying to avoid going to see the band of a third co-worker, feels a lot like director Kevin Smith’s debut film Clerks. Besides the surface comparisons — both are shot in black and white and both feature a pair of retail employees bonding — Howling at the Moon‘s naturalistic dialogue and use of what seem to be non-actors helps give the short a sense of weightiness. The film is an interesting attempt at bridging the gap between documentary and fiction and, in the process, the filmmakers have created an often funny flick.

Fatakra

With a simple story and powerful acting from his cast, Soham Mehta packs an inordinately large emotional punch in his short family drama Fataka. Samrat Chakrabarti stars as Naveen, a young Indian immigrant who has, after a three year absence from his family, finally been reunited with his wife and young son. Welcoming them into their new hotel room home in America, Naveen finds himself struggling to appease his family’s hurt feelings and repair their weakened relationship. Mehta combines Hindi mythology with a timeless story of a family’s attempts to reconnect and creates a story that’ll appeal to any fan of good drama — whatever their cultural background. A smooth blend of drama, laughs and feel-good sentimentality, the film’s stirring score by Chakrabarti and potent script only help drive the emotional poignancy home. Fatakra is a much watch at SXSW.

Fran’s Daughter

Eric F Martin crams a lot of emotional baggage into a small package with Fran’s Daughter, his short film about family drama. Amy Cale Peterson, Ann Benson and Jennifer Christopher star as three women who find themselves reexamining long-held relationships when an Alzheimer’s afflicted mother confesses to knowing her daughter was switched at birth with another baby girl. While the film’s melodrama can get a bit heavy handed at times, top-notch acting from the stars, a real sense of atmosphere and tone from the director, and stellar production design help make Fran’s Daughter a short worth seeking out. By boiling down all the angst and uncertainty of a very realistic situation into a short film, Martin was able to concentrate its power into a focused beam. The short is a sound, promising look at an up-and-coming filmmaker.

Nocturn

Writer/director Leanne Welham nicely utilizes a throbbing soundtrack to accentuate her short film Nocturn. Tamzin Malleson, Jennie Jacques and Gregg Chillin star in this English film about a family woman who is seduced by sex and danger into joining a very passionate young couple on an overnight romp through the countryside. Forced to confront long dormant feelings, the woman is left shaken in her stance on life. Welham’s short film is beautifully shot — nicely utilizing the thick, lush shadows cast on the trio’s nocturnal shenanigans. The short’s trio of actors all turn in great performances — never slipping into late-night Cinemax territory although the subject matter could have certainly lead them astray.

Pioneer

Singer/songwriter and occasional actor Will Oldham gives an amazing performance in writer/director David Lowery’s phenomenal short film Pioneer. In the short, Oldham plays a father whose bedtime story for his son blends fact and fiction to offer great nougaty insights into life — the insights nestled in a crunchy, historically epic shell. While the film’s action is entirely confined to the bedroom of the young boy (Myles Brooks), Lowrey’s script rises to the challenge of the premise — pulling audiences in and making them feel as if they are in the same room as the father and son. Despite the self-imposed restriction, the film has an immersive, dramatic feel due to Oldham’s acting and some great sound design by Tim Nagle. As Oldham lays out his family’s fantastical origins, Nagle’s precise use of sound layering perfectly compliments cinematographer David Blood’s warmly rich camera work — the combination of strengths working to accentuate the intense, soulful performance by Oldham.

The Third One This Week

Writer/director Felix Thompson straddles the line between dark comedy and tragedy in his short film The Third One This Week. As a doctor prepares to deliver bad news, circumstances align to give the entire situation a twisted outcome. Running at only four minutes, Thompson’s short does not have a lot of time to lay out its story — instead taking audiences on an emotional express bus. Thompson never goes for the easy — but cheap — gag, instead setting the film up for a punchline that’s a weird blend of conflicting emotions.

The Narrative Shorts 1 line-up premieres Saturday, March 12 at 11:00 AM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar. It’ll screen again Tuesday, March 15 at 3:30 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Ritz and Wednesday, March 16 at 11:00 AM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar.

NARRATIVE SHORTS 2

Boobie

Slow motion machine gun firing? Check. Elijah Wood with a old-timey mustache? Check. A teddy bear named Boobie? Check. Bryan Gaynor’s stylish and absurd short film Boobie is a whole lot of fun packed into a small package. Brian Petsos (who also wrote the screenplay) and Elijah Wood star as two dueling dandies whose show-off ends in gunplay. The short has no real narrative structure — at least none sturdy enough to hang your bowler hat on. Instead, Boobie focuses on an uncomfortable awkwardness that helps breathe a freshness into the film — making it hugely watchable and even more enjoyable.

Animal Control

Julian Richings, who has been tearing it up in recent episodes of Supernatural as the physical embodiment of Death, stars in writer/director Kire Paputts’ touching short film Animal Control. Richings wordlessly plays an animal control officer who spends his days emotionlessly cleaning up roadkill and feeding the caged animals at the pound. Meanwhile, his nights are spent lovingly tending to his vast collection of taxidermy — much of the raw materials procured from the roadkill he collects. When the animal control officer collects an injured dog that is not quite dead, he begins to reexamine his relationship with animals — specifically the importance he has put on dead, stuffed ones over the living variety. Without uttering a single word, Richings gives an amazing performance — using the bare minimum of facial expressions while still managing to let audiences know exactly what is going on inside his head. Also to be commended is whoever trained the film’s actor dog Dekka. The pooch’s role calls for an astonishing level of acting and never once is the audience asked to suspend their belief. Paputts has a gem on his hands with Animal Control — don’t miss the chance to catch it at SXSW.

Muscles

In writer/director Edward Housden’s short film Muscles, gender identities are explored when a young boy finds himself overshadowed by his older sister’s desire to be a bodybuilder. Den Kamenev stars as Richard, a quiet, insecure kid searching for his own identity. Richard’s sister Millie (Max Bergh) is a brash, outspoken braggart who bullies her brother and dreams of winning bodybuilding competitions. Without knowing too much about Housden, his short film seems immensely personal — offering an often brutally honest look at what it means when your sister is a better boy than you are. As the short builds towards a destructive, violent ending, great, subdued performances help make the film something special.

The Narrative Shorts 2 line-up premieres Sunday, March 13 at 11:30 AM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar. It’ll screen again Tuesday, March 15 at 1:30 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar and Thursday, March 17 at 4:00 PM at the Alamo Lamar.

NARRATIVE SHORTS 3

Prom Night

Directors Celia Rowlson Hall and Jae Song take a very simple concept — an examination of the cultural trappings that come with dream girls and trips to the prom  — and knocks it out of the park. Hall, who also stars in the short, looks straight into the camera and leads the audience through a dance at an empty school gymnasium decorated for prom. Through a series of slight wardrobe alterations and spontaneous costume and hairstyle changes, Hall takes the viewer through an litany of archetypal lovers — from the virginal to the holy to Lolita to Carrie. All the while, The Ronettes’ “Be My Little Baby” plays — punctuating and supporting the film’s assumed messages. Like the best narratives, so much of Prom Night can be seen as open to interpretation. Though the concept is simple and Hall, with her wild, high-energy dancing, the film’s sole actor, Prom Night is a story as meaty as they come — and a must see at this year’s SXSW.

Ex-Sex

With a distinctively pink, almost nostalgic hue cast over his film, director Michael Mohan explores the aftershocks of a relationship as two former lovers spontaneously decide to have one more go in bed together. This isn’t the jokey, laugh-track situation comedy version of another go at love, though, Mohan’s film perfectly captures that awkward, painfully aware sense of longing that comes from newfound loneliness — and the accompanying realization that you can never truly go back home again. A great, careful grasp on the camera’s movement and subdued acting from the shorts’ leads Kristen Riley and Jacob Womack makes Ex-Sex a truthful, melancholy look at love’s last struggle for air.

Eat

Perhaps its the Zach Galifianakis-like beard of star Brett Gelman or the film’s initial quirkiness — both of which may fool audiences into thinking they are about to watch a comedy — but writer/director Janicza Bravo’s Eat stands out for its remarkable ability to go from 0 to creepy in a very short period of time. Gelman stars as a recluse with borderline agoraphobic tendencies who has a very dark, very unsettling encounter with a female neighbor played by Katherine Waterson. While the short’s dark leanings may border a bit on the over-the-top at moments, engaging performances by the two stars and a stellar script from Bravo make Eat immensely watchable. I would say entertaining but — because of the dark subject matter — it would be hard pressed to call Eat at all entertaining. Bravo builds a palatable tension in the short’s relatively brief running time — piling on a sense of impending dread with each new interaction between her two stars. Subdued music from Heather Christian creeps alongside the film — driving up the tension and wonderfully complimenting the actors’ work.

Boy

In Topaz Adizes’ short film Boy, the relationship between a young boy and his emotionally distant father provides context to a rite of passage that marks the youth’s accent into manhood. Finn Greene is the young star of Boy, a quiet kid hiding a surprising amount of pain and frustration. During a drive around the ranch with his father, the kid is allowed to let some of his anger peak through the surface when he is given a rifle by his father and told to take aim at a pair of coyotes. The subsequent encounter between the boy and the coyotes could offer a peak into the boy’s frustrations with his own father. Adizes’ film is beautifully shot — making great use of natural light and the natural scenery.

The Narrative Shorts 3 line-up premieres Saturday, March 12 at 2:00 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar. It’ll screen again Monday, March 14 at 11:00 AM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar and Thursday, March 17 at 1:30 PM at the Alamo Lamar.

Medium Cool: 4 (not so) Shorts

Clear Blue

Chris Sheffield stars in writer/director Lindsay MacKay’s beautifully shot short fantasy film Clear Blue. As Simon, Sheffeld is a quiet, awkward young man who takes on a new job as a lifeguard at a community pool. Assigned to the early morning shift, Simon’s only swimmer is a crotchety older woman who demands her privacy. Unfortunately, that’s one request Simon refuses to honor — as he’s immensely drawn to the woman’s ability to hold her breath for extended periods of time. Not too mention the young beauty that suddenly appears under water whenever the older woman submerges. MacKay’s film is not your typical fantasy film. It combines the elements of the best — romance, mystery, haunting music (in this case, composed by Nathaniel Smith). Unfortunately, Clear Blue builds towards a climactic, unfortunate ending that proves love has consequences.

The Medium Cool line-up premieres Monday, March 14 at 1:30 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar. It’ll screen again Wednesday, March 16 at 4:00 PM at the Arbor theater, Thursday, March 17 at 5:30 PM and Saturday, March 19 at 3:30 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Ritz.

Chief Serenbe

Evan Curtis’ remarkable short film utilizes stop-motion animation to showcase a brief snippet in the life of a hitchhiking doll. Told without dialogue, Curtis’ film soars thanks to the director’s keen sense of frame competition. Curtis, who was also the short’s cinematographer, editor, screenwriter and producer, gives the brief profile a beautiful melancholy feel with his confident use of colors, movement and the camera. This short would be more than watchable if it was filmed with live actors. Shot using a doll and stop-motion, though, and Curtis’ film is a testament to why audiences should make time for short films.

Chief Serenbe will accompany screenings of the Spotlight Premiere film The Dish & The Spoon. It premieres Saturday, March 12 at 10:30 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar. It’ll screen again Monday, March 14 at 11:00 AM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Ritz and Thursday, March 17 at 2:30 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar.

Room 4 Rent

Max Weissberg’s short film Room 4 Rent is a unassuming slice of life story about two strangers who find a shared connection. Anna is a new arrival to New York looking for a room to rent. During a tour of a potential sub-let, she builds a microcosm representation of a relationship with Max, a gawky lease owner who loves to dance. Weissberg’s short is nicely shot and features some great acting from its leads H.R. Britton and Olivia Horton. The slow dissolution of awkwardness between the two characters and their ever-so-slightly blossoming bond is well balanced. While it may not have a particularly flashy narrative, Weissberg’s short shows plenty of competence in its subdued emotional depth. Weissberg’s feature-length film Summertime, which reunites him with Room 4 Rent actress Horton, is officially on my radar with this short film. I look forward to the opportunity to see what the writer/director does with a feature-length story.

Room 4 Rent will accompany screenings of the Emerging Visions film Fuck My Life. It premieres Sunday, March 13 at 6:15 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar. It’ll screen again Wednesday, March 16 at 4:15 PM and Thursday, March 17 at 8:00 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar.

Training Session

In Christian Lalumière’s short film Training Session, the filmmaker explores the connection between exercising and the endorphins that are released in the process by beautifully photographing a team of athletes as their various workout sessions break out into highly choreographed displays of modern dance. Punctuated by music from Nicolas Bernier, Training Session is like a high class advertisement — not surprising considering the filmmaker’s background in marketing. The short looks stunning — and is a great preview of the type of film audiences are in treat for should the filmmaker ever attempt a longer piece of work.

Training Session will accompany screenings of the Spotlight Premiere film Elevate. It premieres Tuesday, March 15 at 10:00 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar. It’ll screen again Sunday, March 13 at 4:30 PM at the Vimeo Theater and Thursday, March 17 at 6:00 PM at the Rollins Theater.

Mokhtar

Abedellah Ichiki stars as Mokhtar, a young boy whose attempted friendship with a baby owl causes him much grief in writer/director Halima Ourdiri’s short film Mokhtar. A goatherder in a remote Moroccan village, Mokhtar discovers a baby owl one day while tending to his heard. Taking it home with him causes his father to freak out — the adult believing the creature to be a demon that’ll bring an evil curse with his very presence. Ichiki’s young age will catch audiences off guard as the actor turns in a stellar performance. The actor’s skills come through especially strong when the young boy is locked in a shack until the curse passes or the owl disappears — which every happens first. Ouardiri tells a no-frills story with maximum emotional impact. This bite-sized nugget of world cinema comes much recommended.

Mokhtar will accompany screenings of the SXGlobal film Tunnelvisie. It premieres Saturday, March 12 at 11:00 AM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Ritz. It’ll screen again Thursday, March 17 at 9:30 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Ritz.

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