Short Film Reviews: Black History Month
In celebration of Black History Month, I'll be taking a look at a few short films courtesy of Black filmmakers.
Coming out of a year marked by heavy racial conflict and far too many cases of fatal police brutality against people of color, Black History Month 2021 can hopefully act as a time for recuperation while we continue to work towards a better future. And with all that happened in 2020 in mind, now is as good a time as any to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of Black individuals. So in the spirit of this month, I present a review list covering 6 short films made by Black filmmakers. Shout-outs go to the folks behind Short of the Week, as their extensive short film catalog makes this review set possible:
In the first film of this list, we follow a very unconventional love story as a mosquito (voiced by Maya Rudolph) becomes intensely attracted to a young man (Jay Ellis) struggling with a painful breakup. Right off the bat, Thirsty's aesthetic makes it a great visual watch. John Wakayama Carey's cinematography treats us to some crisp establishing shots and perfectly puts us into a mosquito's POV. Despite being billed on Short of the Week as a comedy, don't go into Thirsty expecting wall-to-wall laughs. Most of the humor is contained to the lovestruck bug's fixation on her human crush, with the rest of the film being a standard slice-of-life tale.
The comedically odd premise behind Thirsty is what gives that slice-of-life story its edge. Maya Rudolph is a riot as a hopelessly infatuated insect while Jay Ellis is likable and sympathetic as a man trying to mend his broken heart--which ends up mirroring his mosquito admirer's struggles with the obvious obstacle between her and her desire for love. In the supporting cast, we have LaRoyce Hawkins and Michelle Buteau as the man's supportive best friend and an equally friendly/funny nurse he encounters. Both are memorable side characters, with Hawkins making a strong impact as his character encourages his friend to move on and stops him from blaming himself for his ex's infidelity. And while I wish the film had ended with better closure regarding said ex, Thirsty's finale contains a surprising plot twist and an ending that will leave you speechless for one reason or another.
Plot-wise, Thirsty falls into a bit of a rut in its middle act before things get back on track for the climax. But when the film utilizes its unusual concept to its potential, it delivers a lot of laughs and some surprisingly poignant emotion. And with a stellar cast to carry it all, Thirsty makes for an enjoyable watch that might change how you react the next time a mosquito comes buzzing your way.
Score: 7 out of 10 dead squirrel smells.
Haunted by the pain of a traumatic event, Mia (Iniki Mariano) is desperate for relief. Her search for help leads her to counselor Echo (Charlotte Palmer), a woman who runs an isolated retreat center that employs brutal methods of helping patients "move through" their trauma. While the cinematography for The Retreat isn't as active as Thirsty's, it's no less excellent. Sonja Huttunen is able to capture the rustic beauty of the titular establishment and the nature surrounding it, juxtaposing it against the institution's violent practices and Echo's abrasiveness towards Mia.
It doesn't take long for the viewer to see what Echo's treatment center really is, with that moment being shocking, despite how understated the revelation is. From there, The Retreat becomes a well-handled horror drama questioning the "Revenge=Justice" fallacy. Even before we find out the extent of Mia's trauma, Echo's attitude when "helping" her process that pain feels more aggressive than therapeutic. It gets worse as the film goes on, and between Charlotte Palmer's fervid portrayal and the general cult vibes being given off by Echo and her "patients", you'll be left grimacing as Mia is pressured by her alleged ally into following her twisted program.
Iniki Mariano shines as the short's troubled main protagonist, throwing herself into Mia's moral dilemma both physically and emotionally. SPOILER ALERT Even as Mia ultimately goes through with murdering her son's killer and is praised by Echo and the group for it, her final expression makes clear that the "victory" is an utterly hollow one. Finley's still dead, and now she has blood on her hands and is caught up in the web of a morally challenged woman and her similarly unhinged brood. It would seem Mia is actually worse off for having given in to her baser desires.
(A subtle way The Retreat demonstrates its criticism of "eye-for-an-eye" retribution is in the screaming exercise Mia is a part of. Under Echo's supervision, she's unable to release her pain organically, but is able to do so when left on her own. It's a tragic reminder that had Mia received genuine help, she might've been able to work through her feelings constructively rather than go down the grisly path Echo goaded her onto) Spoilers Over
Unlike the similarly themed short film Interview With a Racist, The Retreat takes a more nuanced look at the futility of revenge and how hard it can be to let go of trauma. Well-shot and with a cast helmed by two powerful actresses, The Retreat is sure to suck you into the warped world that director Marcus Anthony Thomas creates.
Score: 8 out of 10 sickles.
Suicide by Sunlight:
In a modern take on the vampire horror subgenre, pediatric nurse Valentina (Natalie Paul) leads a double life as a vampire, her melanin protecting her from sunlight. But with her secret causing her to be barred from seeing her daughters by her ex-husband Langston (Motell Gyn Foster), will Valentina resort to primal means to be reunited with her children? Suicide by Sunlight has a lot going for it with its unique premise. The vampire lore set up in its opening scenes was fascinating in how it alters traditional vampire conventions and ties race into the equation without feeling forced.
There's a morbid sense of empowerment in how, in this film's universe, African American vampires are given an advantage because of their skin color. The scene where Valentina first lets her true form emerge while out at a nightclub is appropriately ominous with a sinister allure and Natalie Paul gives an excellent enigmatic performance. While you might initially empathize with her for being separated from her daughters, there are quite a few moments you might wonder if Langston is right to want to keep her away. That moral ambiguity culminates in a brutal conclusion with disturbing implications that are sure to unnerve you.
However, for all the potential Suicide by Sunlight had to be a compelling film, it feels like only a fraction of it gets used to its full effect. The creative goldmine offered by the film's unique supernatural universe is left untouched for the most part, with much of the film simply following Valentina throughout her day as she deals with her issues with Langston. It feels like a mistake to create this fascinating world of vampires, only to confine the story to a fenced-off corner of it. There's also an interlude in the middle of the action involving an impassioned priest's sermon. Not only is said sermon difficult to understand thanks to his heavy accent, but for the life of me, I can't see how what I can comprehend connects with the rest of the story.
By focusing only on Valentina and her family drama (a story where the vampire aspect could easily be erased without much difficulty), we're left with only a small taste of what the world of Suicide by Sunlight has to offer. I sincerely hope director Nikyatu Jusu will consider doing a sequel, as it would be a shame to see this intrigue-brimmed realm she's created go to waste.
Score: 4.5 out of 10 puppy calendars.
Robot & Scarecrow:
In another unconventional love story, a robotic pop star (Holliday Granger) and a sentient scarecrow (Jack O'Connell) meet by chance at a music festival and begin a whirlwind romance after the robot flees from her owners. Robot & Scarecrow is a mostly silent film, with the only prominent speaking characters being the robot's owners. Aesthetically, the effects used for both titular characters' looks are impressive, with the scarecrow being remarkably detailed. Holliday Granger and Jack O'Connell give solid emotive performances as their respective characters, selling the quick connection that forms between two beings with experience being mistreated by thoughtless humans.
SPOILER ALERT (Though in order for this connection to happen, you have to believe that Robot and Scarecrow could spend a whole day hanging out at the festival without the former's handlers finding her or any of her fans recognizing her through her flimsy disguise) Spoilers Over
But by and large, the story told in Robot & Scarecrow is a slow and predictable one. According to Short of the Week, this film started life as a scrapped concept for a Katy Perry music video, and it's easy to see those roots in the hurried development of the title characters' relationship. Their romance begins as love-at-first-sight and bonding over their mirrored experiences, with most of their remaining screentime together amounting to a standard romantic montage. With the tragic ending of this unexpected love being heavily telegraphed from the beginning, Granger and O'Connell's performances can only do so much to draw you into their characters' thinly-crafted connection. Like Suicide by Sunlight, Robot & Scarecrow opens strong, takes place in a peculiar world, and ends on a palpable emotional note. But thanks to stagnant pacing and a generic story that barely explores that world, it makes for another short film with a frustrating amount of untapped potential.
Score: 4 out of 10 purple hoodies.
Prepare to be taken to the edge of your seat by this Thryone Tommy written/directed psychological drama. A marine navigation student on the verge of graduating, Nate Russell (Thomas Olajide) prepares for his final exams. But with the pressure to pass causing Nate's severe anxiety to flare up, will the stakes prove too high? From the second Mariner's title card appears, the music transports you into Nate's mind. From the striking overture that plays over the opening to the bouts of intense chords that accompany Nate's exam process, Erica Procunier perfectly captures the feeling of crippling anxiety. Whether or not you can relate to such feelings, Mariner is bound to keep you as tense as Nate is with its attention-grabbing soundtrack and disorienting sequences that will leave your head spinning.
That taut atmosphere is precisely the reason why Mariner's deliberate pace works as well as it does. Thomas Olajide gives an authentic performance as a driven but troubled man, selling the gradual accumulation of stress Nate picks up before it all comes to a head in the climax. Not only do we see how general test anxiety and a past trauma are affecting Nate, but you also get the sense there's some institutional racism working against him as well. This is namely seen in the form of main instructor Captain Colin, who Rod Wilson plays with enough ambiguity to make you wonder about his intentions. Is he just a strict and demanding teacher, or is there a more prejudicial motivation behind the way he treats Nate?
Of the supporting cast, Alison Louder and Alli Chung make the most impact as Nate's rowdy but supportive friend Hannah and his more level-headed instructor respectively. Nate's trauma flashbacks bring a touch of ambiguity to the outwardly basic nature of what happened to him in his youth, and while it does provide the opportunity for the viewer to fill in the blanks for themselves, some may find it frustrating not to get a clear picture of Nate's background. But as a suspense film that aims to paint an accurate picture of anxiety in subtle strokes, Mariner is a rousing success that is sure to resonate with anyone who can relate to Nate's struggle.
Score: 8 out of 10 inadmissible errors.
To bookend this list, we'll be wrapping up with another short film directed by Nicole Delaney. Similar to Delaney's Thirsty (which YOYO predates by two years), the movie follows a young woman in a strange bind when it comes to romance. In the case of Caroline (Sophie von Haselberg), her problem emerges from the fact that she's a virgin who has survived an unexplainable apocalyptic event. When she happens to find another survivor (Martin Starr), Caroline thinks her luck is changing--but things don't go quite how she was expecting them to.
Released in 2017, YOYO's story and themes hit a lot closer to home in an era ravaged by COVID-19. The opening shots of Caroline walking through her desolate city with a bandana wrapped around her face feel quite familiar, and the feelings exposited by Caroline and her surprise co-survivor ring painfully true for those grappling with isolation and survivor's guilt in the midst of this devastating pandemic. Ultimately, though, that unintentional tie-in to current events is about the only thing truly memorable about YOYO. The film is a slow and uneventful piece, with most of the "action" consisting of conversations between Caroline and her unexpected guest.
These conversations do result in a few genuinely emotional moments delivered well by Sophie von Haselberg (who also acted as a co-producer for YOYO) and Martin Starr. But otherwise, it makes for a dull watch that isn't helped by the lack of chemistry between Haselberg and Starr. You never feel any connection form between the characters as their chance encounter leads to a discussion about their bizarre situation. SPOILER ALERT While the film wisely doesn't expect us to believe a romantic relationship could develop between the pair, the ending still tries to suggest a friendship is blossoming between Caroline and her guest. Given how their last conversation before going to the beach was an argument in which Caroline tried to conflate her virgin status with the man having lost his wife to the apocalypse, this doesn't resonate all that well. Spoilers Over
On an unrelated note, YOYO outdoes Thirsty in terms of being mislabeled by Short of the Week. It's dubbed as a dark comedy, but apart from the unspoken hilarity of Caroline's sex life being her main concern after the apocalypse, there's no comedic atmosphere to be found. If the interactions between Caroline and the newfound survivor were supposed to be funny, Haselberg and Starr's often overly-stoic deliveries (particularly the latter's) don't convey that. Between all its issues with acting and pace, YOYO's interesting premise is taken down a boring path, with the movie ending on a generic message that doesn't even really fit with the story. Between the two short films that Delaney has directed as of writing this, Thirsty is the one I'd give the higher recommendation to.
Score: 4 out of 10 Michael Jordan standees.
In terms of quality, this list has turned out to be an even split. The Retreat and Mariner are enthralling short thrillers that draw you in with their intensity and hidden complexity. Conversely, Suicide by Sunlight and Robot & Scarecrow are both well-concepted films that sadly crumble under the strain of subpar execution. With rewrites, I could easily see both movies (as well as the similarly underwhelming YOYO) transforming into enjoyable short features. But for all their faults, these films showcase some great talent on and off camera, with even the weakest entries on the list having some redeeming qualities to them. And if you want to check out more Black-made short films, click here to browse Short of the Week's Black Filmmakers collection.