Short Film Reviews: Valentine's Day
For Valentine's Day, here's a review collection of short films all about love!
In these times of great hardship and division, love is needed now more than ever before. So to celebrate Valentine's Day 2021, I decided to take a look at 10 short films focusing on romance and relationships. From endearing love connections to the darker side of February 14th, the works on this list tackle all the complexities that come with romance. So whether you're taken, ready to mingle, or spending this day happily single, here are some short films that you might be interested in watching over a box of chocolates:
Ironically enough, we begin this list with a film centering on a first date. After starting their relationship online, Luke (Bony Fonseca) is preparing to meet Michelle (Anna Goodmaker) in person for the first time. While the premise behind Reality may sound simple, it's sure to surprise you with how much it has going on under the surface. From the opening scene of Luke's severe pre-date nerves, Bony Fonseca vividly draws you into the man's anxiety, which becomes all the more poignant when you learn about Luke's backstory. Then, as the date gets underway, Fonseca displays an awkward charm that Anna Goodmaker complements by giving Michelle a more easygoing allure.
Fonseca and Goodmaker play very well off each other as we watch Luke and Michelle's date unfold, with that chemistry allowing you to feel the pair bonding. And when it seems like Reality is about to end its story on a half-baked moral about social media, it instead ends on a well-thought-out and emotionally-resonant twist that's open for interpretation about what it's saying in regards to mental health and romance in the digital age. With slow-burning action that keeps you watching and an ending that packs a little punch, Reality makes for a great watch--and a relatable one if you can see yourself in Luke like I do.
Score: 8.5 out of 10 horoscope signs.
You probably couldn't imagine a carwash as the setting for a love story, but Camille Campbell makes it so in this short film she wrote and directed last year. Washland Express follows weary doctor Cora (Jennifer Allcott) as she receives some unexpected company during her visit to the carwash. That company is carwash employee James (Josh Helman), who needs to ride along to assure the wash is running properly. Over the next few minutes, Cora and James forge a fast connection that will be just as quickly tested by a shocking revelation. To give credit where credit's due, Washland Express is well-done on a technical level. The camerawork and sound design perfectly capture the feeling of being in a carwash, much like how the music captures the film's light and wacky tone.
But when it comes to the script and story, Washland Express isn't as well-designed. Jennifer Allcott and Josh Helman (the former of whom acted as a co-producer for the film) give solid performances, but the banter between Cora and James is very bland. The pair goes from one tangent to another, and while the random nature of their conversation makes sense in context, it doesn't change how wooden so much of their dialogue is. Things pick up a little once the big secret is revealed and the film delves into the crazier part of its story. But the secret isn't as wild as you might expect, and the craziness that ensues post-revelation isn't enough to counteract the flat action that precedes it.
For her directorial debut, Campbell had a unique concept to work with that could've made for a witty and subversive take on the rom-com meet-cute trope. But with largely stale dialogue and a plot that doesn't do nearly enough to capitalize on that concept, Washland Express's potential is left floundering.
Score: 3 out of 10 orange Crocs.
Now this is how you subvert romance tropes in an entertaining way. This meet-cute scenario takes place at a bookstore, where browsing customers Will and Kate (Dave Beamish and Lydia Mocerino) might have a mutual attraction brewing--aided by the store's watchful owner (Darren McGreevy). At first, Booklovers appears to be content being a standard silent short film following a blossoming romance. As I watched, I was quickly reminded of that Extra gum commercial that blew up a few years back. The music and cast work together to cultivate a quirky atmosphere, which helps make up for how the first half of the movie is basically just Will and Kate bumping into each other around the store.
Once you reach the part of the movie when the characters start talking is when the subversive edge of Booklovers emerges. SPOILER ALERT Darren McGreevy throws himself into his character's unsettlingly gung-ho attitude towards the idea of Will using a love spell to win Kate's affections. And conversely, Dave Beamish and Lydia Mocerino are lowkey hilarious as Will and Kate react to his suggestion with all the appropriate disgust and horror. With the Love Spell/Potion trope having long been derided for the icky implications behind it, Booklovers takes those implications to a logical disturbing conclusion. The film also throws another twist at you right before it ends, allowing you to briefly think there's still going to be a Hallmark-ian ending before quickly returning to the path of realism. Spoilers Over A fun rom-com satire with an equally fun cast, Booklovers has a lot to offer after its repetitive opening montage.
Score: 8 out of 10 Jodi Picoult novels.
This emotionally packed love drama follows country music star Adam Charles (Clayton James), who's kept his homosexuality a secret from his fans. But after Adam and his boyfriend Brian (Sean Poague) are the victims of a homophobic attack and video of the assault reaches his record label, Adam will be forced to make a choice: his career or the man he loves. Watching Dominant Chord reminded me of another LGBT+ short film I reviewed for my Christmas in July list last year: Adam & Steve, which coincidentally was first released four months before Dominant Chord's premiere. Both films set their focus on a pair of closeted boyfriends, with a conflict arising in regards to one half of the couple being unready to come out. But while Dominant Chord replicates some of Adam & Steve's mistakes, it still makes for a better-written film by comparison.
Even as we see evidence of the hate crime Adam and Brian endured, Dominant Chord's opening has a peaceful "calm-before-the-storm" feel to it, giving the viewer some time to breathe before the inevitable relationship fallout commences. Once it does, the script and main leads dig into the material with a fervor that invests you in Adam and Brian's loaded fight. Sean Poague vividly sells Brian's stance against staying in the closet for the sake of his boyfriend's career, while Clayton James works through bouts of stiff delivery to poignantly depict Adam's fear and uncertainty about coming out. While you understand Brian's frustrations and hurt feelings, you also understand why Adam is so wary about taking that leap. Finishing out the main cast is Caitlyn Stryker, who plays Adam's stern and unsupportive agent Jolene with all the necessary ice.
But in the end, the conflict feels underwritten when it comes to Adam's perspective. While the film allows room to sympathize with Adam, Jeremy Leroux's script feels too quick to side more with Brian. SPOILER ALERT The most egregious example of this is how Brian isn't called out hardly enough for having set Adam up to be outed to his label--an act that's revealed by him wishing he'd posted the video online instead. The movie hardly addresses this inexcusably callous decision for what it is and doesn't let Adam properly chew Brian out for it. The ending even seems to suggest that Brian was justified in trying to force Adam out of the closet and calling him a coward for resisting. Even worse is how from Brian's rant after revealing what he did, you almost get the sense that he did it more to wreck Adam's career and spite his "backwards hick" fanbase than anything else. Adam is far from innocent and Brian's frustrations remain understandable, but his way of handling them is thoroughly unsympathetic. Spoilers Over
If this short film were ever adapted into a full-length feature, I could see Leroux doing more to explore the ramifications of Brian's actions and paint a more balanced picture of his and Adam's complicated relationship. As is, while there's still plenty of nuance and emotional resonance to be found in this tragic tale of love marred by bigotry, Dominant Chord's script could use some fine-tuning.
Score: 6 out of 10 CMA nominations.
Things That Fall:
College life can be difficult--especially if you have auditory hallucinations like Alex McKay (Sterling Beaumon). But today, after another disastrous day in class, Alex discovers he might have found a kindred spirit in deaf classmate Carly (Stephanie Nogueras). While billed as a romance, Things That Fall is much more focused on mental health and how Alex's schizophrenic hallucinations impact his life. The sound department does an excellent job placing the viewer into Alex's audio POV, with the overlapping voices during Alex's midterm exam being appropriately overwhelming. You'll be as appreciative of Alex's headphones as he is when they provide temporary respite from the sensory overload.
Much like Reality's Bony Fonseca, Sterling Beaumon is uncomfortably accurate in his depiction of a socially awkward young man. Spending a majority of the film silent, Beaumon uses body language to convey the anxiety Alex's hallucinated voices leave him with. While it's not as striking as Fonseca's portrayal, it's every bit as efficient at making you feel for Alex. Things That Fall also deserves credit for the subtle ways it highlights ableism and the stigma against mental illness. The most attention-grabbing is when we see the different ways Alex and Carly are treated by their professor (played with pompous gusto by Blake Robbins). While Alex is chastised and left to struggle academically by his teacher, Carly is allowed an in-class ASL interpreter to accommodate her more visible disability.
On the romance side of things, Sy Huq's script falls into routine territory as Alex and Carly meet again in the library. Deaf actress Stephanie Nogueras makes a charming impression as Carly becomes the first person we see show Alex some semblance of compassion. Time constraints and a lack of development, however, leave Carly as more of a plot device than a character. Couple that with the ridiculously schmaltzy music that accompanies the ending, and Things That Fall becomes a static rom-com in its second half. But thanks to a well-made first half and an earnest cast that's rounded out by Valeri Ross as a comedically snappish librarian, Things That Fall remains a compelling watch that tackles a worthy subject matter.
Score: 6.5 out of 10 broken pencils.
While attending his best friend's wedding, Paul (Joe Gillette) needs a break from the crowd--and winds up striking up a conversation with fellow attendee Jessie (Devin Kelley). Written and directed by its male lead, Reception is similar in premise to Washland Express. Both are short films that have a quirky man and woman brought together by sheer happenstance, resulting in a bond forming between them. But where Washland Express's dialogue felt forced and overly scripted, Paul and Jessie's conversation feels perfectly natural.
Things get off to a slow start, with Paul and Jessie's initial interactions being moderately amusing and fairly awkward. But in another departure from Washland Express, Joe Gillette's script and chemistry with Devin Kelley allow you to see the dynamic between Paul and Jessie change. After a few aimless minutes of going from one topic to another, their discussion centers onto the wedding itself and Paul's history with the bride and groom. This allows Gillette to bring Paul's vulnerable side to light and for his budding friendship with Jessie to grow into something more. While Jessie is comparatively less complex than Paul, Kelley nonetheless plays well off of Gillette and sells Jessie as Paul's outwardly-more-upbeat-but-every-bit-as-awkward-and-snarky foil. The beginning might turn some off, but once Paul and Jessie capture your interest, Reception is sure to keep you watching right up to its adorable conclusion.
Score: 8.5 out of 10 inside jokes.
To wrap up this list, I decided to close with four short films specifically centered on Valentine's Day. Though in the case of Brotherly Love (coming to us courtesy of technology company DJI), it's a movie made specifically for Valentine's Day. In-universe, the story could be taking place in the middle of August for all we know. After an argument with his girlfriend Megan (Krista Kalmus) ends with her dumping him, Chris (Derek Theler) begins working to try and win her back, with some assistance from his little brother Kyle (Steele Stebbins). Of the films currently evaluated on this list, Brotherly Love has the most simplistic plot of the bunch.
An uncomplicated story about a man trying to win back his girlfriend, it feels like director/screenwriter Barry Battles took a Hallmark movie, condensed the action down to 8 minutes, and made it a pseudo-commercial for DJI merchandise. The product placement isn't terribly subtle, and the generic storyline causes a few issues to crop up. Because we don't get a clear picture of how Megan and Chris's relationship went wrong, Megan's snide dismissal of Chris's attempts to make amends feels needlessly harsh. While Megan and Kyle try to establish Chris as a man who struggles to open up about his feelings, none of his actions throughout the film convey that. And unsurprisingly, that simplicity and the film's short runtime combine to make for a rushed resolution that hinges on Megan realizing something you'd think she'd have realized much sooner.
(Kyle's character development hits a similar-but-not-as-extreme snag. Despite the title and plot synopsis suggesting Kyle is an integral part of Chris's efforts to make up with Megan, it takes almost half the movie's runtime--not including credits--for him to get to that point. Until then, he's your standard Annoying Little Brother type who sees Chris's romantic plight as something to laugh at)
But given the apparent marketing-based motivation behind Brotherly Love, it's unlikely Battles and his crew were looking to make anything groundbreaking. The cast does well with what they're given, even if Derek Theler's emotive portrayal goes against Chris's "emotionally unavailable" characterization. Krista Kalmus sells Megan's frustrations in a way that almost makes up for how underdeveloped her plot-triggering breakup with Chris is, while Steele Stebbins does what he can to bring heart to Kyle's climactic scene of standing up for his brother after spending the first half of the movie mocking him. In better qualities, the film gets a little entertainment mileage out of its sendups of popular rom-com scenes and SPOILER ALERT (sort of) the finale somewhat addresses Megan's less-than-likable attitude by having her be the one to stop Chris from "leaving for the airport" and ask him to give their relationship another chance. It's not exactly an apology, but at least it's something. Spoilers Over
Brotherly Love drops the ball in the writing department, and the cast can only do so much with the time they're given to pick up the pieces. But with what it gets right, it makes for a harmlessly mediocre romance short. And really, what else can you ask for from a mini rom-com that ends with an ad for what's essentially a new-and-improved selfie stick?
Score: 4 out of 10 Osmo Mobiles.
Happy Valentine's Day:
Just my luck that the first true Valentine's Day story in this short film batch would be a tearjerker. Happy Valentine's Day technically start out uplifting as we see two strangers (Matthew Addison and Rachael Winegar) brought together by a selfless act of heroism. But as the film gradually rewinds to show how this act came to be, we see that this beautiful moment has a heartwrenching source. If nothing else, directing brothers Andrew and Remy Neymarc show how style can be used to tell a straightforward story in a creatively captivating way.
The visual effects team behind the film's "reverse chronological order" storytelling style did a fantastic job. They even create a few moments that invite the viewer to speculate how things will play out--though the story is ultimately an easy one to predict. The music is just as powerful, with the instrumentals taking on a hypnotic quality as the story moves toward its devastating climax. And as the key player in that climax, Alexei Bondar's sorrowful performance is sure to leave you moved. Using excellent cinematography and sound to tell a no-frills story about love and tragedy, Happy Valentine's Day spins gold out of an admittedly unsurprising plot.
Score: 9 out of 10 shattered mirrors.
Now for all the Anti-Valentine's Day celebrators out there, I present two grislier February 14th tales released by CryptTV. One Valentine's Day night, a couple (Jessica Morris and Marty Dew) is eager to enjoy a romantic evening together. Little do they know that a masked maniac (Adam Dunnells) has a brutal surprise for them. Not even making it past the 2-minute mark, Be Mine is a micro-shot of Valentine terror that follows an ultra-familiar horror movie plot.
Being so short, though, the film doesn't have much of an opportunity to mess up. Coming out of the gates with a startling first glimpse of its bow-wielding killer, Be Mine doesn't waste time getting to the gruesome action. Jessica Morris makes for an emotive final girl, though it was annoying to see her character go from competent fighter to frozen-in-fear victim in the blink of an eye. And even accounting for the estimated $2,500 budget, a certain blood squirt effect (done via a conspicuous blood squib) is too wacky-looking to fit into what's otherwise a straight-laced horror short. But otherwise, for a mini-slasher flick, Be Mine makes for a bloody good hour and thirty-six minutes.
Score: 7.5 out of 10 streamer hearts.
In this horror-comedy, finding out that his girlfriend Sam (Arielle Brachfeld) is cheating on him with his best friend isn't the worst of Owen's (Matt Mercer) problems. Because as it turns out, both he and Sam have become the targets of a homicidal Cupid looking to dish out some Valentine's Day retribution. Leaning much closer to the comedy side of horror-comedy, Valentine's Die staggers under the weight of shaky writing and performances. The most entertaining character of the bunch would definitely be the Chipmunk-voiced Cupid, as his quips remain morbidly funny throughout the entire film. If you're like me, you might even find yourself rooting for the little psychopath.
The cast behind the unfaithful trio Cupid attacks is a mixed bag. While Dan Creed feels at ease playing the casually sleazy Aaron, Matt Mercer and Arielle Brachfeld each have their share of stiff/awkward deliveries. The fact that the film's humor is on the hit-or-miss side doesn't help matters. Still, there are a fair amount of moments when Mercer and Brachfeld provide some effective laughs as Owen and Sam evade Cupid's wrath. On the downside, the dark comedy vibe of Valentine's Die is interrupted in the final minutes of the film by an out-of-nowhere attempt at playing Owen and Sam's relationship drama straight. The mood whiplash sticks out like a sunflower in a bouquet of roses and ends the movie on an uneven note. So while you might get a few chuckles out of this nightmarish take on the Cupid mythos, I'd say Be Mine (while considerably shorter than Valentine's Die) is the more consistently entertaining Valentine horror short to come out of Crypt TV.
Score: 4.5 out of 10 illicit kisses.
While this list may've had a few duds and ended on the subpar Valentine's Die, the majority of the works covered here make for enjoyable slices of romance. While some entries on this list follow heavier subjects than others, there's still some nuggets of heart and love to be found even in films like Dominant Chord and Happy Valentine's Day. If you're looking for more upbeat content to enjoy this V-Day, though, I'd recommend Booklovers or Reception. Happy watching, and from the bottom of my heart, I wish you all a happy Valentine's Day!