The Silver Brumby: a subdued and unexciting film of human greed and obsession

John Tatoulis, “The Silver Brumby” (1993)

Notable mainly for featuring a very young Russell Crowe near the beginning of his acting career, this film is framed as a story within a story about the relationship between Australian writer Elyne Mitchell (Caroline Goodall) and her daughter Indi (Amiel Daemion), and how Indi learns through listening to Mum and reading her work about the natural world they live in – the world of the Snowy Mountains in the New South Wales / Victorian border region – and the animals that live there and which must contend with the encroachment of humans into their territory. The animals that dominate Elyne Mitchell’s writing are brumbies (feral horses) and in particular, one brumby called Thowra, the eponymous silver brumby who through the series of children’s books, starting with “The Silver Brumby”, founds a dynasty of wild silver horses who become the envy and targets of obsession of the humans living and working in the Snowy Mountains area. What initially starts as an entirely fictional work – the life of Thowra and the pursuit of this silver stallion by someone known only as The Man (Russell Crowe) – takes on a more realistic edge for Indi as she discovers that The Man is based on people she and her Mum know. From then on, as The Man recruits another to assist him to chase down and capture Thowra, Indi and her mother share the same fears that Thowra will lose his freedom, independence and most of all his spirit if his cunning, knowledge and experience of the bush, speed and endurance cannot save him from capture. Inevitably though, the horse ends up being cornered by the humans pursuing him and must risk his life to avoid capture.

The film adopts a subdued approach which highlights the beauty and mystery of the natural environment but does no favours to the original book on which it is based. The significant events of Thowra’s life – his early upbringing, the defeat and death of his sire by upstart stallion The Brolga, and his own challenge to the Brolga when he is full-grown – are dealt with almost as incidental to Thowra’s eventual confrontation with The Man. There is not a great deal about how Thowra gathers together the mares that make up his harem and how he defends them from other stallions and the humans that hunt the Snowy Mountain brumbies. Equally, there is not a lot about how writing “The Silver Brumby” and sharing the story with Indi allow Elyne Mitchell and her daughter to forge a deeper relationship with each other than they might otherwise have had, and how Indi matures and learns about how human greed and obsession not only destroy individual animals and Nature generally, but also diminish humans, isolate them from their roots in Nature and end up destroying them.

The scenery is beautiful and poetic but that is all that can be really said for the film. While the actors do their best, their characters are very underdeveloped and Crowe is given some very laughably poor lines to deliver. The horses used in the film are very good-looking and well-groomed – real brumbies would be scrawny creatures and have a raw edge to them – and perform quite adequately but the sense of grit and living on the edge in a difficult environment (for humans and horses, be they both tame or wild) is absent. This viewer has the impression that the original intentions behind the film were very ambitious but, unlike Thowra who gives everything he has and risks everything – even his life – to preserve his freedom and spirit, the film definitely pulls its punches. What we have is a film that fails to generate much excitement or a sense of danger, and which also does little to suggest that the humans in the film could live with brumbies and Australian fauna and flora in the Snowy Mountains region instead of trying to master and dominate them all.

Awakenings: a spooky Gothic retelling of the classic Henry James story

Bhargav Saikia, “Awakenings” (2015)

Inspired by and closely based on Henry James’ famous novella “The Turn of the Screw”, this short film is conventional in its narration and is notable mainly for its spooky Gothic atmosphere, the growing sense of paranoia and the dissolution between the real world and the spirit world. Nearly all the action in the film takes place at night. Anannya (Prisha Dabas) is a nanny hired to babysit two children Ruhaan (Jairaj Dalwani) and Meera (Palomi Ghosh) in a large mansion. When we first meet Anannya, she is getting the children off to bed. Throughout the evening, while the children are asleep, or are supposed to be asleep, Anannya realises there are visitors to the house, and they are not of the material kind. These visitors exert a strange attraction on the boy Ruhaan and he is drawn out of bed to meet them. To Anannya’s horror, these visitors appear to be the children’s long-dead parents … and they seem intent on bringing Ruhaan into their world.

The dark, shadowy tone of the film, the labyrinthine nature of the mansion (in which Anannya appears to run around in circles and end up in same room where she started) and the constant suggestion that her misgivings and fears are all just a dream – cue the occasions in which Anannya suddenly wakes up in her chair – help to enliven a story that has been told many times before. Details in the film impart an extra of layer of meaning that may or may not be relevant to its story: Dalwani, playing Ruhaan, was in his early adolescent years at the time so the ghostly events around the character Ruhaan may symbolise his awakening as an adult, leaving childhood and Anannya the nanny behind. The two children sleeping in the double bed may or may not suggest an unhealthy closeness that might have existed in their family before the parents died.

The constantly panning camera, following Anannya, induces nausea and a real sense of paranoia and fear. Dabas does good work in a role that could have been very histrionic and which has very little dialogue. The house is a significant character in the film with its many rooms, dark wooden floors and furniture, and passages linking rooms through which Anannya runs (with the camera close behind) to find the menace. Apart from this, the film does not add anything to the original Henry James story that other films haven’t already built on.

Zero: teenage survivalist making a critical decision about her future

Keith and David Lynch, “Zero” (2019)

In a post-apocalyptic world, when robots and humans have fought each other almost to the death in a long drawn-out world and there are few survivors, a father (Nigel O’Neill) teaches his daughter Alice (Bella Ramsey) how to survive on her own in a derelict house with enough food stockpiled to last five years. One day a mystery electro-magnetic pulse cuts off technology and kills the father who is wearing an internal pacemaker. For the next several years, Alice, having been drilled to stay in the house and never to leave it, never to trust anyone and never to allow anyone inside the house, bears up through sheer grit and determination. One day as the fifth year nears its end, Alice comes to a decision about her future and what she will have to do to achieve it.

The film appears to be a proof-of-concept short created to attract attention and garner support for a television series or a full-length movie treatment. Due to a strict budget, the film relies on main actor Ramsey to deliver a convincing performance about a young teenage girl left alone and to find some purpose in living. Ramsey puts in an excellent effort as Alice in a dark and near-monochrome environment. The film has the look (if rather clean) of post-apocalyptic survivalist films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and Konstantin Lopushansky’s “Dead Man’s Letters”. Daily life with nothing to do comes across as harrowing as if Alice had to work at a dead-end job full-time with no time off.

The pace can be a bit slow and leisurely and it only picks up right near the end when Alice has made her decision. At this point the film draws back to show the context into which Alice is walking: she is wading into a world that has become a tabula rasa on which there will be many opportunities for a youngster like her to make a significant mark.

The film has something to say about allowing survivalist rules to dominate your life rather than using them as guidelines; and by extension allowing past tradition, custom and history to dictate future decisions and actions. While Alice’s father tries in his own way to protect his daughter, he ends up turning her into a prisoner bound not only by the physical prison but also by mental bonds (expressed in reminders around the house) and her loyalty to him. At the end, Alice has to decide on whether she will continue to be bound by invisible fetters or not.

Slut: a highly accomplished student film on teenage sexual awareness and the danger it attracts

Chloe Okuno, “Slut” (2014)

Set in the 1970s, this cheesy morality tale is a meeting of Little Red Riding Hood and Southern US small-town Gothica in the style of famous horror films of that period, such “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Carrie”. Heck, there isn’t much in “Slut” that Stephen King would not recognise, from the teenage female main character who is rejected by the cool kids at high school to the narrow-minded and bigoted atmosphere in the town where she lives, to Granny who spends all her days watching cartoons on television, the lone drifter who rolls into town and the spate of serial murders of teenage girls that begins shortly after.

Molly McIntyre plays Maddy, the teenage girl who lives in a ramshackle house with her grandmother (Sally Kirkland) in a rural town and who is ill at ease with the sexually aware girls in her form at high school. The kids laugh at her for her bespectacled look and her dowdy long dresses. One day a stranger (James Gallo) turns up at the shopping mall ice-skating rink and, after observing her and one other lass, a blonde called Jolee (Kasia Pilewicz), tells Maddy that she’s a lot more interesting than the girls who only care about flaunting their bodies and sexuality to attract dates. After some time though, and having caught sight of that stranger one evening going off with Jolee, Maddy determines she’ll try to dress the same way and goes off home to cut the legs off her jeans and put on some diaphanous blouses with the bottoms tied at the waist. Dressed in such provocative clothing, Maddy starts hanging out at various places where the high school boys congregate in the evenings. In the meantime, the stranger tortures Jolee and kills her in a horrifically excruciating way.

The stranger discovers what Maddy has been up to and decides to teach her a lesson by breaking into her home at night and attempting rape and torture. At this point the film becomes violent and grisly, and the cinematography can be dark and murky. In contrast with its slower first half, in which Maddy’s character is delineated, and her surroundings to be quite impoverished culturally, the film’s action from here on is very fast and surprising as Maddy finds deep inner resources in herself as she fights the stranger.

The character stereotypes are so obvious as to be hackneyed and ripe for parody. The story’s setting pays homage to the old 1970s horror films that must have held director Okuno and her friends spellbound as kids. The film’s themes of awakening teenage sexuality and the danger this can put young innocent individuals like Maddy into, the small-minded nature of rural towns and teenagers’ yearning for purpose in their lives that will take them away from the bigotry and alienation of these their home towns may be familiar to fans of such movies but they take on additional resonance in Maddy’s actions against the stranger. Maddy discovers she is much more than just a kid who can transform from dowdy to alluring with a change of clothes; she realises she can be her own woman after all. The irony is that the one fellow who showed her her true potential happened to be a serial rapist and killer.

McIntyre does a great job playing Maddy in all her character transformations while the other actors have too little screen time to do other than just reinforce their character stereotypes. Gallo at least manages to appear charming and supportive, and dangerously deranged at the same time, and the film gives him a motive to change his mind about Maddy and see her as a slut.

While the film’s pace is a bit uneven and maybe its earlier half could be tightened a little more, it has such fun playing with audience’s expectations of what may happen to Maddy and with the various devices and motifs typical of 1970s teenage horror flicks, that it turns out to be very enjoyable to watch. One can scarcely believe that it is the work of a student film director.

After Her: missing-girl parody that leads to a personal transformation

Aly Migliori, “After Her” (2018)

A young man, Callum (Christopher Dylan White), goes in search of a young woman, Hayley (Natalia Dyer), five years after she has disappeared from their small rural community located next to a mysterious forest. It seems that Hayley, bored by the lack of mental stimulation, initially has run off into the woods. As Callum retraces the steps they both took the last time they met five years ago, he finds the mystery black spiny object, shaped a bit like a hand grenade, that Hayley had long ago found and kept, and is transported to an underground cave system in which he apparently experiences the most incredible hallucinations and visions. Callum’s life is much changed after his underground cave explorations and he can never view his ordinary life as a city college student the way he used to again.

Set in lush forest full of shadows and the darkest of dark green tones, in caves and dark tunnels with water running through them, the film has a distinctive look suggestive of layers upon layers of plant growth hiding a terrible secret, of decay and of a strange and monstrous sexuality lying under and close to the surface of the soil. Migliori cites H P Lovecraft’s fiction as an inspiration and the influence shows in a number of scenes featuring running water and strange clouds and shadows rising from it. The cinematography can be very good and film editing that helps to build a rising sense of alarm, even panic, is well done. The actors play their parts as well as they can though they sometimes give the impression of being a bit awkward and not a little confused at what they are supposed to be doing.

The plot is easy to follow but the film’s message and what Hayley is meant to represent are not too clear. It is obvious that Hayley has become something other than the human she used to be what. Has she become a monster or is she aligned with some powerful and ambivalent force in the earth? Are her intentions or those of the beings she represents beneficent to Callum and his people? Why should Callum be so special to her? These questions arise during the course of the 13-minute short but remain unanswered. It could be that the plot can be interpreted on a number of different levels but the plot is so vague and the characters so underdeveloped – no wonder Dyer and White seemed confused at what they were supposed to be doing – that viewers remain in the dark about what is supposed to be happening and what they are supposed to follow and judge.

The film just about holds together thanks to some very good visual shots and Callum being its central figure. Its story is of some significance to its writer-director Aly Migliori but it needs to be told better in a more straightforward way so the audience can more readily identify with Migliori’s intentions.

Pain and Glory: a self-referential film of an artist entering a winter of discontent

Pedro Almodovar, “Pain and Glory” (2019)

A film investigating how creation can be inspired by personal memories and suffering, “Pain and Glory” is a fiction biographical drama, whereby director Almodovar, seemingly on the verge of his twilight years as a director and artist, might be seen as taking stock of his career and the themes that have informed his body of work. In comparison with past work, “Pain and Glory” appears as quite a sombre film though there is still plenty of colour and visual artistic style, and the acting is very restrained.

At the beginning of “Pain and Glory”, famous writer and film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) has been living hermet-like in his Madrid mansion for several years, his depression and various physical health problems preventing him from doing the work he has long loved to do. During this time he has been caring for his aged mother Jacinta (Julieta Serrano) in her final years. Her death, and a film retrospective dedicated to his past work, featuring his break-out film that also gave actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) his best-known role, prompt Mallo to contact Crespo despite the two not having spoken to each other for 32 years after a bad fall-out during that film’s production. The meeting with Crespo introduces Mallo to heroin, to which the film director becomes addicted after smoking the drug helps to relieve his chronic pains and puts him in a reverie during which past childhood memories return to him. Thereafter, throughout the film, Mallo smokes heroin to rediscover aspects of his childhood of 50 years ago, during which he and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) move into a grotto that his impoverished father has been able to find in a village and which Jacinta spruces up with the help of local youth Eduardo (Cesar Vicente) who, in exchange for lessons from Salvador in learning to read and write, paints and tiles the walls.

During a later visit to Mallo’s tastefully decorated house, Crespo finds a script “Addiction” that Mallo put aside some years ago and wants to perform it on stage. “Addiction” happens to be about a past lover who had been addicted to heroin and suffered greatly for it. Mallo initially refuses but some time afterwards – and especially after a disastrous Q&A session at the film retrospective during which Mallo and Crespo fight – he relents and Crespo performs the work. By sheer coincidence, a former flame of Mallo’s, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the subject of “Addiction” no less, is visiting Madrid from Buenos Aires, has seen a flyer for the performance, and sees the show. Crespo puts Federico in contact with Mallo and the two meet again, perhaps for the last time. Federico tells Mallo that he got off the heroin, married an Argentine girl, had a family with her and is running a successful restaurant business with his two sons.

After meeting Federico, Mallo resolves to give up the heroin and sort out his medical issues. While waiting for surgery, he and his assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas) visit an art gallery and discover a picture of himself as a child hanging in the gallery. He buys the picture and reads a message on the back of the canvas – written by none other than Eduardo, all those 50 years ago. This remarkable coincidence helps him to resolve to take up film-making once again.

Banderas puts in a remarkable virtuoso performance as Mallo in all his suffering and his petty, self-obsessed behaviour, and the rest of the cast does good work. The flashbacks to Mallo’s past are well done, though an element of mischievous surprise comes at the very end which puts those flashbacks in another light and explains why Jacinta’s eyes seem to change colour as she ages! Apart from the performances and the arresting visual style of the film (which of course indicates good cinematography among other things), there really isn’t much in the film’s narrative that would elevate it to the status of a great film: viewers are no better informed at the end of the film than at the beginning what made Mallo a great film director or his break-out film with Crespo the remarkable work that it was. How Crespo faded out as an actor is not explored; indeed the character disappears from “Pain and Glory” around the halfway point of the film. The episode with Federico is brief and after that character leaves, the film’s narrative marches on to another topic with no more reference to Crespo, Federico and whatever they inspire Mallo to do next.

One gets the impression that “Pain and Glory” is no more than an ordinary and banal story about an artist having a creative mid-life crisis and making a huge fuss out of it. As one character, Dr Galindo (Pedro Casablanc) says, “there are people worse off than you [Mallo]” and that could be advice someone already gave to Almodovar.

Farming: fictional biographical drama ignores its wider social context

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, “Farming” (2018)

“Farming” is a fictional biographical drama based on actor / director Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s childhood growing up in Britain as a foster child parked with a working-class white family by his Nigerian parents in the 1960s / 70s. The practice in which Nigerian parents fostered out their children with white families in Britain grew out of traditional practices in parts of sub-Saharan Africa in which families sent their children to other families in other communities, often to pay off debts or to fulfill family or clan obligations, which would bring up those children as if they were their own or educate them in skills and knowledge that the birth families hoped would give the children social or other advantages when they became adults. Nigerian families in the mid-20th century, living in a country newly independent from British colonial status, neither saw nor anticipated the consequences that might come when they fostered their children with white families in Britain. In the case of Enitan (played by Zephan Hanson Amissah and then Damson Idris), the boy is fostered out by parents Femi and Tolu (director Akinnuoye-Agbaje himself and Genevieve Nnaji respectively) to a white couple Ingrid and Jack Carpenter (Kate Beckinsale and Lee Ross) living in Tilbury, a post-industrial working-class district in London. The Carpenters end up fostering Enitan’s two younger sisters and several other Nigerian children to get social security money, but this means the couple cannot give Enitan the love and sense of stability and belonging he needs. As the other fostered children are girls, they behave perfectly but Enitan is a dreamy boy given to playing with imaginary friends, living in a community where being a boy and being artistic and dreamy do not mix.

As he grows up, Enitan experiences a continual loss of identity and culture shocks due to constant racist bullying at school and subtle bullying at home, combined with his birth parents’ sudden appearance from nowhere to take him back home to Nigeria where he is beaten by a teacher for speaking only English at school and subjected to cultural practices he does not understand and which would be considered severe physical abuse in Western societies. His embarrassed parents dump him back with Ingrid and Jack and so the racism and bullying start again and escalate into his adolescent years. At the age of 16 years Enitan is suspended from school and through a series of harrowing incidents ends up joining a racist skinhead gang known as the Tilbury Skins, led by Levi (John Dalgleish). By this time Enitan has truly embraced his self-hatred and hatred of anyone and everyone who is not white.

While Idris, Beckinsale and Dalgleish give excellent performances – Dalgleish just about chews up every scene in which he is in, and only a python really threatens to steal his scenes from him – the film’s plot itself is something of a let-down. Enitan’s adventures with the skinheads are a dreary string of violent incidents in which the Tilbury Skins torment anyone and everyone who they don’t like the look of, including other skinheads. In this part of the film, one stereotype after another regarding the skinheads and their culture is paraded; why Enitan continues to stay with these people in spite of the continual dumping he experiences is hard to understand. Levi and the other guys in the gang surely see something in Enitan that they respect and admire, otherwise they would not allow him to tag along for fear of being attacked by other racist skinhead gangs. One paradox present at this point in the film is that when the skinheads visit their favourite pubs, also patronised by other skinheads, the music playing in the background is usually reggae, dub or ska – all music originating among Jamaican black people!

Eventually Enitan is rescued from skinhead culture by Ingrid and a saintly school-teacher (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) but the scenes in which Enitan is deprogrammed, learns that people do care for him and comes to accept himself as he is, and makes his peace with Ingrid and Jack, race by very quickly. The unfortunate result is that Enitan’s re-entry into society as a normal person seems very superficial and just as stereotyped as his acceptance into the Tilbury Skins. For that matter, the film’s portrayal of skinheads and skinhead culture as racist, degraded and brutish is just as one-dimensional: the reality is that during the 1970s / 80s, skinheads embraced all political, social and cultural points of view (thus explaining their liking for Jamaican immigrant and Jamaican British culture and music) and the stereotype of skinheads as white supremacist neo-Nazi thugs is a creation of British mainstream media at the time catering to middle class dislike and distrust of working-class people.

By concentrating on one character’s loss of and search for his identity and a community he can call his own, “Farming” ignores other related issues. Ingrid herself is a Gypsy and the discrimination and violence that Gypsies have traditionally suffered in Britain (and still do) are hinted at very faintly in the film. How and why Levi and his fellow skins are outsiders in the Tilbury community – they are shown living in a rubbish dump – is not explained in the film. Most disturbing of all, the film shows working-class people in the worst possible light as racist, ignorant and violent, and ignores the political, economic and social changes in post-Thatcherite Britain that have marginalised and impoverished working-class people, to be mocked by the middle classes, in the process turning the working class into the nightmare the middle classes fear so much.

Dogs: a metaphor for the psychological and other effects of global war and violence

Mohammad Babakoohi, Jakob Bednarz, Benjamin Berrebi, Diego Cristofano, Théo Noble, Karlo Pavicic-Ravlic, Marthinus van Rooyen, “Dogs” (2019)

One of the longer films in the Gobelins 2019 graduation students’ batch of animated shorts eagerly awaited by the French animation school’s fans around the world, “Dogs” is a metaphor for the chaos and psychological effects of war and brutal violence on humans. The action takes place during World War II, about the period of the Warsaw Uprising. A Polish resistance fighter with a rifle (but no taste for killing) escapes a burning city and travels through open countryside in search of a new home. He sees a huge tree with a generous canopy in the middle of an endless meadow and walks towards it but is attacked by a huge savage dog chained to the tree. The man manages to climb into its branches but is stuck while the canine sentry patrols the area around the tree. Day passes into night and while the man is dozing, another dog sneaks into the area and is promptly set upon by the guard dog. During the fight between the two animals, the man is able to sneak down the tree and retrieve his rifle. The guard dog, having killed the other dog, menaces the man who must now decide whether to defend himself by killing the guard dog or be killed …

The beauty of the rural scenes and the cloudy skies, looking rather like oil paintings, belie the chaotic and violent conditions of the world in which this animation is set. The large tree in particular is portrayed as gorgeous and lush, and the guardian dog is vicious, even cannibalistic. Generally the live characters are drawn a bit more crudely than the background scenery but this may be deliberate: war may have dragged living things back to the edge of savagery, though so far it has spared some scenes of natural forest and grasslands. The scenes of burning cities at the beginning and the ending of the film suggest an unending cycle of war, brutality and violence as each new generation entering the world is dragged into this cycle.

The symbolism of the characters can be rather dense and multi-layered. Wooden as it is, the tree is a significant character perhaps representing a bridge between the hellish landscapes of the world and a better world where violence and war are unknown. The savage dog chained to the tree and apparently guarding it may be doing so on behalf of divine masters, so as to prevent ordinary human beings from climbing it and reaching out to the heavens. Significantly the man’s destination turns out to be a burning city – is it the burning city he left at the beginning or is it another city? – to which the entry is a gate over which a three-headed dog (in Greek mythology, this would be Cerberus guarding the entry to the kingdom of the dead) stands as if in triumph. Would the city have been on fire if the tree had not been on fire because of what happens between the man and the guardian dog? Does the city represent the Hell of war, of chaos, of mass prison / concentration camps, and of genocides?

For a film of its length, “Dogs” makes quite deep demands of its audience to ponder how war and brutality ultimately brutalise living beings such as the man and the guardian dog, and whether the man ultimately accepts his destiny to be a killer of humans (at the cost of losing his humanity) if only to defend and save himself.

Souffle-court: a study of an authoritarian father-son relationship through bike racing

Pierre-Marie Adnet, Jean-Luc Dessertaine, Guillaume Pochez, Tristan Poulain, Vincent Rouziere, Alessandro Vergonnier, “Souffle-court” (2018)

In this 5-minute short film, a young teenage supercross rider Tom is being trained by his father for an upcoming major competition at which recruiters for what I presume is the national training club in the sport will be attending. The film portrays the authoritarian ways in which Tom’s father controls his son, risking the boy’s safety and life at times, to fulfill his own need for recognition and success, his own career in biking having been unsuccessful. Up to now always compliant, never daring to rebel, Tom starts to have doubts about his dad’s obsessively single-minded focus on his riding and gradually comes to realise there is a whole world outside supercross racing where he can be free and just himself. Viewers sense that crunch-time is rapidly coming, when Tom must make a decision that perhaps could affect the rest of his life …

Compared to some other Gobelins shorts that were also released in 2018 by graduating students, the animation is not quite as good though the backgrounds are well done and quite detailed. The characters are drawn in a minimalist way that makes them look flat but which allows their faces to show subtle emotions: indeed I would say this portrayal is the film’s strongest point. Plenty of close-ups are taken of Tom and his father to show how trapped Tom feels in his relationship with his father. The father behaves like a bastard throughout the film but becomes a broken man at the film’s climax and viewers can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for him when he discovers that his dream has coming crashing down a second time.

While the story is quite simple with an open-ended conclusion, it is nevertheless quite emotionally intense in its own minimalist way.

Les lèvres gercées: a tiny kitchen sink drama reveals a dysfunctional family

Fabien Corre, Kelsi Phung, “Les lèvres gercées” (2018)

In just five minutes, within the setting of a small kitchen and with just two characters – a mother and her son who is wrestling with gender dysphoria – a family crisis plays out through dialogue demonstrating inattention and lack of communication. The boy wants to tell Maman that he is transgender but Maman, shown throughout the film with her facial features cropped so that we never see what she really looks like until the very last shot, is too concerned with other things – like his truancy problem, the fights he has with classmates and finally his suspension from school – to listen to him.

The style of animation, looking as if someone was pressing down hard with an ink brush, is very detailed and shows characters and objects in close-up with lots of lines. We are treated to some interesting points of view: at one point, we have a bird’s-eye view of cereal being poured down the kitchen sink, being sucked into the drain. At other points in the film, soup starts to boil over in the saucepan and washing whirls around in the front-loader. The boy’s anguish and pain over what he is and what he feels himself to be are so clear that viewers can’t help but feel for him. The mother is often portrayed quite harshly with lines that emphasise her anger and narrow-minded stance.

As with other recent Gobelins graduates’ films, the voice acting and the script, entirely reliant on dialogue, are effective in establishing an intimate and private home scene in which a child faces an inner conflict that he needs parental help with, but which is not forthcoming. It’s only when he appears to be considering suicide that the mother finally begins to understand the depth of the boy’s despair. At this point, the film is done.

Viewers will want to know what happens next but this is an appropriate point to end the film. More is known about this particular family’s dysfunctional nature by the little that is revealed and what is deliberately left out, which may be a lot or not much at all. This animation is an excellent example of the “show, don’t tell” principle of telling a story and how dialogue is used to push that story along and embellish it.