Short Film Reviews: Women's History Month
For Women's History Month, here's a review list of 6 short films--all written, directed, and starring women.
Since #MeToo went viral in 2017 (eleven years after activist Tarana Burke founded the movement), it can't be denied that it brought massive changes to the entertainment industry and society as a whole. Serial sex predators were exposed, abuses of power against women were brought to light, and a culture of sexism that was once tolerated and accepted was called out for what it was. And while there's still plenty of work to be done, society has definitely made great strides toward gender equality in the past years. So in celebration of Women's History Month, I'll be taking a look at a few short films created by female filmmakers. With an evenly split selection of films from Short of the Week and Omeleto (my go-to sources for short films), let's begin!
It started out as an average day for 16-year-old Carla (Bridie Noonan), a high school basketball player who's friends with three boys on the football team. But after making a disturbing discovery on one such friend's laptop, everything Carla thought she knew about them will change--and she'll have to choose between standing by her friends or doing the right thing. If you didn't read the plot synopsis before starting Locker Room, you wouldn't be faulted for thinking you were about to watch a more lightweight coming-of-age picture. The carefree opening music and easygoing camaraderie among Carla and her footballer friends (Finn, Mack, and Connor) could easily lure you into a false state of security before Carla's discovery blows it all up.
But knowing what this opening leads to, that lightness carries with it a growing sense of dread that hits you with a burst once Carla opens Finn's laptop. A tense moment of silence between Carla and Finn has that dread at its peak, as you can immediately see how Carla's view of Finn and her other friends has been irrevocably changed. In fact, there's a lot of emotional baggage to unpack about Locker Room and what it has to say about Carla, the football trio/Carla's friendship with them, and Carla's general demeanor throughout the film. It should all be enough to keep you engaged from the slow-boiled opening to the explosive conclusion.
Bridie Noonan does an excellent job in her first-ever film role, playing Carla's journey through the film with impeccable range. Whether she's dealing with typical teenage self-esteem issues or wrestling with the moral dilemma she stumbles into, Noonan effortlessly connects you to Carla's struggle. The fact that Noonan looks and sounds significantly younger than her male co-stars adds to the discomforting atmosphere that comes from Carla unearthing her friends' true colors. Said co-stars easily rise to Noonan's level, giving the boys affable personalities that make it believable that Carla would be drawn to them as friends and conflicted about whether or not to turn them in for their actions. Charlie Hannaford is noteworthy for how he throws himself into both sides of Mack's personality and Max Stephens sells Finn's status as the most morally ambivalent of the group.
While there are parts of the dialogue-heavy scenes that might get hard to understand for non-Australian viewers, it's not enough to take away from Locker Room's prowess as an emotionally packed film tackling a hot-button issue at the time of its release. With impactful performances that pay respect to its serious subject matter, Locker Room makes for a thought-provoking watch and a great list opener.
Score: 9 out of 10 Hello Kitty body spray bottles.
In another film tackling sexual harassment, office employee Emma (Angela Wong Carbone) meets with higher-ups to report co-worker Peter (Frank Lewallen) for his inappropriate behavior. But as the meeting progresses, it becomes clearer to Emma that she's fighting a losing battle in trying to get her voice heard. Serving as her debut as both a writer and a director, Doublespeak was inspired by Hazel McKibbin's own experiences reporting sexual harassment. Some of the dialogue is even verbatim quotes from McKibbin's recordings of her ordeal. Thus, it makes perfect sense how Doublespeak depicts the process of reporting sexual harassment with such palpable (and painful) authenticity.
Like Locker Room, Doublespeak is deliberately paced in how it takes the viewer through its uncomfortable story. While the meeting between Emma and the senior managers starts innocuously enough, it quickly becomes clear how things are going to turn out for her. While manager Ben (played by Tony Costa) prefaces the meeting by stating that he "takes these situations very seriously", it doesn't take long to see what a blatant lie that is. We watch as Ben--and vicariously, fellow managers Tom and Ann--nonchalantly dismiss Emma and use technicalities to avoid punishing Peter or even investigating his misconduct. As has been all too common in many real-life cases of sexual abuse, Peter's word--which has the same lack of concrete evidence as Emma's--is given greater consideration.
In more similarities to Locker Room, Angela Wong Carbone gives an empathic performance that matches Bridie Noonan's in how it draws you into Emma's nightmare. You see how Emma enters the meeting nervous but trying to put on a brave face, only to become gradually more crestfallen as her ordeal is downplayed and she finds herself as the one facing scrutiny rather than her harasser. Like Noonan, Carbone allows you to feel Emma's quiet dismay while the script allows her a brief moment of calling Tom out for his callousness. Tony Costa plays Ben as a realistically thoughtless corporate type, as do Ken Driesslein and Tricia Merrick as Tom and Ann respectively. And lastly, Doublespeak wraps up on a subdued somber note with just a glimmer of hope to be found in Emma's friendship with Elizabeth--a co-worker played by Reece Ennis whose gentle support is a stark contrast to Ann casually leaving Emma to fend for herself. With an apt title to go with its timely tale of sexual abuse being swept under the rug to protect men of authority, Doublespeak says a lot in its 10-minute runtime with a cast that's fully capable of helping deliver that message.
Score: 8 out of 10 intimate questions.
In this Norwegian coming-of-age film, it's nearing the end of summer holiday and 14-year-old best friends Astrid and Issi (Idun Asaheim Mykland and Marion Isabell Stærfelt) are intent on lose their virginities before the night ends. But after the girls meet a pair of men who appear interested in them, unexpected events might change Astrid and her friendship with Issi--and not necessarily for the better. With the stylized title and a plot that starts with two teens trying to sneak into a club, Virgins4lyfe's colorful aesthetic is very appropriate. The neon coloring throughout the film (from the pink screen border to the neon lights that accompany the club scenes) embraces the allure of adolescent rebellion that Astrid and Issi are chasing.
But throughout the scenes of wild clubbing and Issi's hypersexual antics, director Thea Hvistendahl doesn't let the coming-of-age drama fall into the background. As the night goes on, Astrid and others become more and more uneasy about Issi's inherently inappropriate behavior. And the behavior we do see is wisely not sexualized to a point where it looks like Hvistendahl is trying to arouse her audience with Issi's actions. As the night goes on, it becomes clearer that Issi isn't as mature as she'd like to believe, and her efforts to push Astrid to follow her example quickly escalate into toxic influence territory.
SPOILER ALERT Issi also shows a bit of a racist side towards Astrid's eventual love interest, giving her calling the police on him a subtly sinister undertone. While the way this twist plays out is unrealistic (the police chase after Astrid's date without even checking on her), it could've made for a strong finish as Astrid seems to realize how awful of a friend Issi has been to her. Sadly, the movie instead ends with Astrid simply walking off with Issi. The closest thing to karma Issi gets is the irony in how Astrid's demureness led to her losing her virginity while Issi's overt come-ons led to rejection. And judging from how she reacted during the brief tryst, Astrid wouldn't consider that a win. Spoilers Over
In addition to the disappointing ending, there's more than a few times in Virgins4lyfe when you might get distracted. It feels like a quarter of the film's runtime is spent just watching Issi revel in her debauchery. But acting-wise, there's not a lot to complain about. Idun Asaheim Mykland and Marion Isabell Stærfelt do a solid job as polar opposite besties, and Shadrack Nsengimana is a healthy mix of charming and sleazy as Rashid. I'd say the best of the bunch, though, would be Evandro Alberto da Costa Cruz Vaz as Astrid's love interest, as his awkwardness and wholesome courtship of Astrid make him much more endearing than the more predatory Rashid. The fact that he appears to be not much older than Astrid (I'm thinking 16 at the most) certainly helps matters. So while it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of writing and pacing, Virgins4lyfe has a cast and sense of style to make up for where the party dies down.
Score: 5 out of 10 nightclub palm readings.
Luisa and Anna's First Fight:
While a much more upbeat film than the previous films on this list, Luisa and Anna's First Fight shares a bit in common with Virgins4lyfe. This film also follows a pair of teenage girls on a mission, but rather than looking for hook-ups, best friends Luisa and Anna (Olivia Taylor Cruz and Allison Moses) are desperately trying to find the location of a fight they heard was going down. Quickly paced with hyperactive cinematography and a pop-rock influenced soundtrack, Luisa and Anna's First Fight certainly captures the frenetic chaos of being a thrill-seeking teenager. The dialogue similarly depicts that carefree abandon and is well-delivered by an all-around natural cast.
Anna and Luisa have a dynamic akin to Astrid and Issi's. While both girls have a wild side to them, Anna is clearly the more grounded half of the pair. Allison Moses is equal parts funny and relatable as Anna becomes less and less amused by her and Luisa's "fight search" and Luisa's growing lies about a fictitious brawl. Olivia Taylor Cruz is just as humorous, and unlike Issi, Luisa never comes across as an insensitive friend to Anna. Her moment of letting her newfound popularity go to her head is a brief one, and even then, it never feels like she's actively choosing "reputation" over her best friend.
As such, the film's ending is a lot more satisfying than Virgins4lyfe's disappointing conclusion. SPOILER ALERT After Anna and Luisa's brief conflict over the latter's recklessness, seeing them finish off the day alone together chowing down on some fast food--a callback to Anna's earlier request for McDonald's--is a sweet sight that affirms the girls' friendship. Spoilers Over Luisa and Anna's First Fight has a bit of the same uneven pacing that could be found in Virgins4lyfe, and the film's plot centering around rowdy teenagers is sure to turn some viewers off. But with a fun cast that knows how to carry a wacky story about high school shenanigans, Luisa and Anna's First Fight packs an entertaining punch.
Score: 7 out of 10 Arby's curly fries.
Penned by its pair of leading ladies, Pink Trailer follows Lucy (Macey Isaacs) and her friend Julie (Jenny Leiferman) as they try to avoid creepy neighbor Benny (Bill Kottkamp). But when Lucy runs out of anti-depressants, she'll have to convince Julie to face her fear so that she can get her refill. Of the trio of female friendship-centric films covered on this list, Pink Trailer is the lightest on plot. The preceding two films had fairly active stories, while Pink Trailer mostly amounts to Lucy and Julie hanging out in the titular abode, keeping hidden from Benny and fighting over whether or not to risk venturing to CVS for Lucy's medicine.
Ironic that Lucy's anti-depressants play such a key role in the plot, as Pink Trailer plays out like the story itself downed a bottle of Prozac. Most of the "action" focuses on Lucy and Julie's lackluster banter as the latter tries to keep Lucy from leaving the house. A few bits are worth a snicker or two, but for the most part, the dialogue feels overly scripted and trying too hard to be quirky. The woodenness of Lucy and Julie's dialogue sometimes even rubs off onto Macey Isaacs and Jenny Leiferman's performances. For the most part, though, both women do what they can to bring some humor to their characters' stale quips. Director Mary Neely also chimes in as the voice of Lucy's grandmother, and while her dialogue is just as unnatural, her exaggerated "eccentric old lady" voice is at least halfway amusing.
Bill Kottkamp is in a similar position as terrorizing neighbor Benny, but like his co-stars, he does what he can to elicit some laughs with what he's given. SPOILER ALERT But between the slightly foreboding IMDB synopsis and all the buildup towards Lucy's inevitable confrontation with Benny, it's kind of a letdown that he just turns out to be a severely-awkward-but-otherwise-harmless weirdo. Spoilers Over Combine that with the stagnant pacing and dialogue, and you have an overall boring film that can't be salvaged by competent actors. At least the warmly tinted set design gives you something pretty to look at.
Score: 3 out of 10 Chipotle burritos.
The Call Centre:
The final film of this list breaks away from the past three by focusing on only one young woman. In this case, we follow Paige (Louisa Connolly-Burnham), an introverted 21-year-old Londoner who works at an insurance call center. One day, a call with a man named David Prescott (Alun Raglan) leaves Paige feeling intrigued, driving her to seek out the man. But Paige's desire for a connection is about to land her in serious trouble.
The last film of this review list has a few surprisingly familiar faces in the production staff. Rose McGowan served as an executive producer, and even more surprisingly, WWE star Mike "The Miz" Mizanin made his producing debut as an associate producer for The Call Centre. Given that the film originates from the United Kingdom, having two recognizable celebrities from the States on the crew is an odd-but-welcome sight. As for the film itself, The Call Centre is an intense slow-boiled drama that keeps you on your toes as to what direction it's going to go. This is on notable display as we're treated to a sequence of Paige making her way to David's address. As she closes in on her destination, the viewer is left to wonder what's about to go down when she gets there and meets David in the flesh.
The way Paige and David's "connection" is formed initially, however, gets things off on a bad foot. Not even a minute into the call, David is acting blatantly creepy with his monotone voice and vulgar tone. While Paige initially seems rightly unnerved by David, she becomes intensely aroused by him in the blink of an eye. There's no segue into this transformation, and with how heavily Alun Raglan lays on the sleaze, we're left with no clue as to what sparked Paige's attraction to David. Had Raglan been more convincingly suave during the phone call or if Louisa Connelly-Burnham had played Paige as being immediately intrigued by David, it might've been more convincing. Though in the second scenario, I could see some gross implications cropping up ("Hey guys! Girls actually like it when you make lewd comments about them!")
But despite this inexplicable leap in logic, the film becomes a tense watch once Paige reaches David's house and SPOILER ALERT things take a violent turn. The Call Centre's writer/director Louisa Connelly-Burnham--who previously made Paige believable as a shy and vulnerable woman--pulls us into Paige's fear as she begins to realize her loneliness has put her in a dangerous position. Alun Raglan makes David a convincingly perverted monster, with he and Connelly-Burnham working together to create a taut atmosphere in David's home. The scene where Paige gets a grimly ironic call from David's wife is much less dynamic comparatively, but makes way for a poignantly ambiguous final shot. Has Paige's encounter with David awoken her hidden bold side--or are we bearing witness to a traumatized young woman using brazen sexuality to cope with what she's been through? Spoilers Over With strong leads and direction that gives its twisted storyline time to flourish, The Call Centre powers through an awkward opening and emerges an engagingly tense drama.
Score: 7.5 out of 10 refrigerator magnets.
While Virgins4lyfe and Pink Trailer stand out for how underwhelming they both were, the films highlighted here are an overall stellar collection. And with their addressing of the topic of sexual abuse and harassment, Locker Room and Doublespeak couldn't have been better female-directed films to open a Women's History Month review list. If you're interested in supporting other female filmmakers, check out Short of the Week's impressive collection of women-made short films and look below for more links on Women's History Month and how you can help in the ongoing fight for gender equality: