The Sundance 2021 Live-Action Shorts – Program 3

You can read my thoughts on Program 1 here and Program 2 here.

WIGGLE ROOM (Julia Baylis & Sam Guest, USA)

On the one hand, a great and likable protagonist performance in Deanna Gibson whose naturalist performance fits right into the realist aesthetic that Baylis & Guest adopt in trying to tell a low-key frustrating story with real-world stakes. Ostensibly, those stakes are kind of abandoned almost invisibly by the time the short ends, leaving an ending where it is obvious how we are meant to feel positive but it also lacks any true resolution to what it previously took very seriously in a manner I’m not convinced the short is aware of. But I also can’t pretend that the sort of sleigh-of-hand the final beats make to let the surprise of that ending land really earns this movie a lot of praise from me, not to mention how Gibson doesn’t underplay or overplay the small victories. I haven’t decided whether or not the fact that Sam Stillman practically looks like if Lin-Manuel Miranda wore Eric Andre’s suit is a benefit or detractor, but it doesn’t help the broadness of the performance or a secondary antagonist. A brusque receptionist earlier in the short matches the sort of natural antagonism that is more fitting to Wiggle Room‘s style and a foil to Gibson’s performance, but this is Gibson’s film by the end of it all.


As though a response to the visually exciting Five Tiger being too short, there had later been a noticeable trend for me of the other great visually exciting shorts in the festival being too long (we will have at least one more in Program 4 where this is a big liability). I am even more paradoxical with regards to The Longest Dream I Remember: it is at once too long to be satisfying as short and too short to truly accomplish the patient atmosphere that the longeurs of its gorgeous cinematography invite. The Longest Dream I Remember is more than any other short the one that I’d be most interested to see adapted into feature-length form, where it could live up to both the “long” and the “dream” in its title. Although, to be fair, it does tap into the dream elements in its selection of shot scales arranged to make us witness an occurrence in simultaneous different forms. But most of all, it probably would give Carlos Lenin the canvas to fill out the narrative with… something. Something other than the ostensibly deliberate non-presences that stand to be dwarfed by Diego Tenorio’s incredible visual eye.

AVA FROM MY CLASS (Youmin Kang, USA/South Korea)

A friend of mine asked while we were talking about Sundance what was the best performance in my eyes? And my immediate response was a pair of performances from In the Earth but after really sitting down and thinking about it… I think I’d have to land on Bae Bonalie here. Child actors can be good or bad, but Bonalie (and I assume Youmin Kang as a director of her performance) do tremendously complex work in giving a naturally nervous little girl several scenarios to display that with a layer of “acting in drama class” and then juxtaposing that with the uncertain way she interacts with her classmates or lets those interactions sink her subtly into further shyness. It is phenomenal work that would probably get more attention if as many eyes landed on the shorts as the features at Sundance. I can’t honestly say that I felt much for any other aspect of the short (and this may be a symptom of it now being a week and a half since I’ve seen this shorts program), but a find is certainly a find.

EXCUSE ME MISS, MISS, MISS (Sonny Calvento, Philippines)

Sonny Calvento’s attack on the EDSA Malls is certainly something with a lot of specificity towards an exclusively Filipino phenomenon, but I found the ideas and concepts it pulled out and tore apart to be universal to capitalism all around the globe. And opening up with that feels like a mistake, because surely Excuse Me Miss, Miss, Miss is a social satire but it’s an extremely fun one to watch on every aspect. Its alienating set designs for the central shopping center it takes place in, its earwormy jingle, its occasionally cheeky choice of compositions, and its ability to have the condescending smiling attitude of the shopping center environment to fuel both Excuse Me Miss, Miss, Miss‘s bounciness as a narrative while also allowing it to sit down as a major target of the taxing of working in the mall. And I find just as much as this lives off of Calvento’s confidence as a filmmaker, it also has to be credited to the polar opposites in the central performances: Phyllis Grande’s stone-cold deadpan to everything she deals with only to be punctuated by wide-eyed discoveries and Mailes Kanapi’s aggressively smiling tyrant in her bright red suit that stands out with the soulless sterility surrounding her. I saw a lot of features and I saw almost all the shorts in Sundance (apologies again to the Documentary programs). In any case, THIS is my favorite film I saw in the whole festival, more than any other feature or short.

FOREVER (Mitch Mcglockin, USA)

Certainly feels like an entry into Live-Action split the difference for Forever as something of an autobiographical documentary while also being very much an animated short. But I guess focusing on category fraud stalls me from saying things that I don’t want to say, so how about I start with what I do want to say? Which is that this is outstanding as a representation of life via Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) which gives this short a three-dimensional feel even in its disarming usage of a tool as flat as the line with something simulating camera movements to stress emptiness and depth at once. And it DOES compliment the sort of story it’s telling and it is a story that absolutely makes my eyes sink into my skull with its morbidity and weird attempting to grapple with AI as an infallible force. And the monologue in which this thought process takes place obviously was instigated by a personal and definitely disturbing instance but I do think it was a phone call taken way too seriously. Like, dude, come on.

BLACK BODIES (Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, USA/Canada)

I absolutely love it when editors are approaching a rhythm from something other than conventional narrative cutting. And that’s what Kelly Fyffe-Marshall does with Black Bodies, keeping up with Komi Olaf’s passionate delivery of poetry regarding the topic you would expect it to regard with that title and matching up with Jordan Oram’s similarly poetic lighting of the titular black bodies and faces in an open interior space. Treating a real-world issue with visual abstraction is to my mind the best kind of approach to appeal to an audience that otherwise won’t listen and Fyffe-Marshall creates that sort of appeal without losing an ounce of blunt impact that this should hit others with.

WE’RE NOT ANIMALS (Noé Debré, France)

Just have to join in the choir of people that say this is a very French movie. In its approach to sexuality, its approach to philosophy, in its approach to human interaction, and none of these are particularly topics that interest me so there was only a hard ceiling on how well I was going to enjoy this short. I give it credit for trying to use its non-stop dialogue to keep moving, though the direction in which the short is moving is kind of hard to determine even after it ends (partly because its ending beat focuses on an entirely different conflict from how it began). It’s perhaps an attempt to accomplish an amusing shagginess, but all I got was the shag and the amusement was more nervous than certain.

LIZARD (Akinola Davies, UK)

I am… kind of pleased that such a weird movie ended up winning the Short Film Grand Jury Prize. And it probably help cases that even despite everything Davies does to make this film about uneasy premonition feel that kind of weirdness so that we connect with Naomi Akalanze’s attempt to piece together this ominous feeling, it is a very easy short film to sit down and feel engaged with. There is certainly the presence of narrative and characters, but at the end of the day Lizard felt like its focus was provided an extended mood: one that feels akin to watching a car crash happen seconds before you end up in a wreck. Shabier Kirchner catches my attention once again so soon after watching his brilliant work in Small Axe, this time by letting the haze in which he keeps Lizard in giving us unsteadiness until the horrible acts we get the sense are gonna happen hit. And Davies’ ability to establish the location as a real space is what keeps Lizard anchored from getting way too intangible so if this isn’t necessarily in my top five shorts overall, I can’t say I’m displeased with such confident work being recognized by Sundance.

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