IFFBoston Review: Narrative Shorts

Sadly I wasn’t able to attend this year’s 12th Annual Independent Film Festival Boston (IFFBoston), since I was in the midst of final projects for grad school. Although thankfully during the festival, I received some screener links from various filmmakers, which I finally had the chance to check out. Most were screeners of narrative shorts varying in length from 8 minutes to 22, so I thought it made sense to do a roundup of my thoughts on all four.

Evan Mann’s Real Ethereal and The Otherworldly

Evan Mann's short The Otherworldly
Evan Mann’s short THE OTHERWORLDLY

Colorado-based artist Evan Mann’s two shorts Real Ethereal and The Otherworldly are totally trippy. Heavily abstract films like his aren’t my cup of tea, but I still respect what Mann accomplishes with them. Both works seem like a means to test staged environments, camera perspectives, and sound editing rather than an attempt to tell a concrete narrative. Their events may happen in a linear fashion, however they don’t make a ton of sense. At least his experiments are successful though, in creating immersive environments, intense movement, and eerily textured music (think crackles and pops).

Real Ethereal should probably come with a disclaimer that says “Cotton balls were harmed in the making of this film,” since it has lots of set pieces constructed out of the fluffy little guys. White is its predominant color theme, with fuzzy rooms and puffy hanging vines. The most interesting vignette involves a cotton swab cleaning inside an ear, while it shows you an abstract representation of the cavernous space. I watched the odd scene, hoping that the inside of my own ear isn’t that rigid and craggy.

Instead of taking place indoors like Real Ethereal, The Otherworldly is primarily outdoors. A slimy white blob bursts forth from a rock formation in the woods, before morphing into a large white creature with human hands and feet. It explores the wilderness and steps inside a portal where the most colorful visuals take place. White is another important color in this short, however it appears to clash with black, which to me symbolized some kind of battle between good and evil. That’s just speculation, but if it is right then it seems like Mann thinks that evil generally has the upper hand in that fight.

Given the success of Mann’s experiments, I’m curious to see how he will apply his lessons from producing these shorts to his next work. I wonder if he’ll continue down the abstract path or try something more traditional.

Jeannie Donohoe’s Lambing Season

LAMBING SEASON - Bridget and Patrick interview Colin Murphy. Image by Zoe White
Jeannie Donohoe’s LAMBING SEASON – Murphy. Image by Zoe White

Jeannie Donohoe’s short Lambing Season was a nice change of pace after watching two very abstract pieces. Her thesis film from Columbia University’s graduate film school packs some excellent drama into a short window. Donohoe’s tale focuses on Bridget (Breeda Wool), an American woman who travels to the Irish countryside in search of the father who abandoned her at birth. When she finds her father, she hopes to learn more about him by posing as a stranger. Since she’s awkward and nervous though, it doesn’t take Bridget’s father long to realize her true identity. Once he does, they start to connect and realize they have more in common than they originally thought.

Donohoe presents a pretty straightforward drama, although she takes great care to establish the emotional difficulty of this first-time meeting for both Bridget and her father. She captures the anxiety and uncomfortable situations perfectly from each perspective through her script and while she has a largely positive message with her film, Donohoe is careful not to be overly optimistic. By the end Bridget is left with a decision and we’re not 100 percent sure, if she’ll let her dad off the hook. This is one of those rare instances where it’s effective that the filmmaker lets the viewers decide for themselves.

Asaph Polonksy’s Samnang

Jonathan Dok in Asaph Polonsky's SAMNANG
Asaph Polonsky’s SAMNANG

Asaph Polonsky’s Samnang is my favorite narrative short of this group for a few reasons. First, it’s a day-in-the-life story, and I love films that provide that brief glimpse into a person or group’s world. Second, in a short amount of time, it conveys a lot of backstory without heavy exposition in its dialogue. Third, it’s really well-acted by its lead Jonathan Dok. And fourth, the arc for its lead character is a pleasant, yet realistic one.

The short’s plot centers on Samnang (Dok), a recent Cambodian immigrant who bakes at night for a donut shop. The night shift is long and hard, however he presses on to save money for his family back home. Just as he’s settling into a routine, his boss hires a new employee and forces Samnang to take her on as his trainee. Not only is he upset that he has to waste time training a new person, but he’s not sure if she’s there to take his job.

Dok’s expressive face says so much about what Samnang is thinking or feeling in a given moment. He easily conveys the isolation and pain Samnang is experiencing away from his family. In other shots, Dok’s lack of facial expression says how annoyed or upset Samnang is for being thrust head-first into an uncomfortable situation. What’s also nice, is seeing Samnang grow and change over the course of a day, with the softening of his heart once he realizes that his new co-worker isn’t out to get him. By the time he smiles in the final shot, I couldn’t help grinning too.

EDIT: After publishing these reviews, producer Danny Langa sent me a link to his narrative short which also played in this same program at IFFBoston, so I recently watched it and added my thoughts below.

Aimee Long’s Distance

Aimee Long’s short Distance packs a surprisingly strong emotional punch in the 24 minutes you spend with it. That’s because it chronicles a father’s estranged relationship with his daughter without giving you much information on why they’re at odds. Set in 2038, the story focuses on Javier (Valentino del Toro), a working-class Spanish man who hasn’t seen his daughter Laura in 11 years. He lives in the United States and she in the Canary Islands, but the despite the distance, he still watches her soccer games on video surveillance and longs to visit her.

What makes this future fascinating is that everyone’s traveling is strictly controlled due to climate change and limited resources. Miles of travel have become a form of currency that must be saved and redeemed like credit. Like many forms of wealth, the rich possess the most miles and use them liberally, while guys like Javier must spend years scraping them together. The technology governing this film is clean and realistic, with a slightly dystopian feel. Long creates a world that appears realized and believable in a short time, which is impressive.

During the short, Javier engages in emotionally charged phone conversations that are simultaneously gripping and hard to watch because Valentino del Toro really sells you on his character’s anxiety and regret. You can tell that Javier wants to apologize for years of neglect, yet he doesn’t know how, other than to try harder moving forward. The disappointing thing about these exchanges though, is that you don’t find out much about Javier’s past mistakes that led him to this point. Long compensates however by showing us ones that Javier’s making in the present, which give you an idea of where he may have messed up before.

As much as you start to root for Javier, you get the sense early on that he won’t get a happy ending, a hunch that’s pretty much right on the money. Not every story can have a fairytale ending however. Some things can’t be fixed no matter how hard you try. Sad, but true.

For more information on IFFBoston, check out www.iffboston.org

Evan Crean

Hello! My name is Evan Crean. By day I work for a marketing agency, but by night, I’m a film critic based in Boston, MA who has been at it since 2009. I have written hundreds of movie reviews and celebrity interviews for Starpulse.com. I have also contributed pieces to NewEnglandFilm.com. In addition to publishing short form work, I am a co-author of the book Your ’80s Movie Guide to Better Living, which is available on CreateSpace and Amazon. On top of writing, I co-host and edit the weekly film podcast Spoilerpiece Theatre with two other Boston film critics. I’m a founding member and the current treasurer for the Boston Online Film Critics Association as well. Lastly, I’m the marketing director and a contributor to Boston Reel, a site dedicated to Boston’s independent film culture. Have any questions or comments about my work? Please feel free to email me (Evan Crean) at: ecrean AT reelrecon DOT COM .