CS Reviews: SXSW Shorts The Shawl, Stucco, Runon, Selfie & Single
Despite the cancellation of the 2020 SXSW Film Festival by the City of Austin due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, I had the opportunity to watch many of the projects that were set to premiere at the festival this year, partly in thanks to the temporary SXSW virtual library that was established by organizers. For this review roundup, I gathered a few of my favorite shorts to highlight some wonderful works from gifted filmmakers and performers who deserve a little extra recognition.
Directed by Sara Kiener and animated by hand by Maya Edelman, this vibrantly animated short centers on a pair of big and beautiful boyfriends (NYC based artists Shane O’Neill and Dusty Childers) who, after years of long-distance, celebrate their reunion at a Stevie Nicks concert, where they share a brush with magic. Conceptualized as an animated film, The Shawl showcases the extravagant banter of outsized personalities O’Neill and Childers in a six-minute testament to radical queer love and the influence of celebrities in LGBTQ culture.
First off, Shane and Dusty are so delightful I could listen to them banter all day and I desperately need a podcast with these two. The animation in The Shawl is perfect for the story and amplifies the joyous tone these colorful boyfriends, as well as Kiener and Edelman, are setting. Not only are we invited to take a trip down memory lane in the animated short, but Shane and Dusty open about what is clearly an incredibly special and shared moment in their lives. Featuring lots of love for Stevie Nicks, her song “Stand Back,” and a relationship that is as charming as the tale and its clever animation, The Shawl is a pure, feel-good short that will guarantee a smile plastered on your face from beginning to end.
The Shawl also received Special Jury Recognition in the SXSW 2020 Short Film Grand Jury Awards in the Animated Shorts category. “The exuberant characters, whose story comes to life in this film, tickled our hearts. We were delighted as this film reminded us that animation in its simplest form when done right can capture the joy and nuance of our daily lives and love affairs,” said the Animated Shorts film festival jury.
Written and directed by Janina Gavankar and Russo Schelling in their narrative directorial debut, Stucco stars Gavankar as J, who is trying and failing to move forward. While hanging a piece of art in her new home, she knocks a hole in her wall revealing what might be another room. Her mind races to think what could be on the other side as she continues to unravel, with the scars of old relationships keeping her trapped inside. This left-of-center short is reminiscent of the slow-burn thrillers of the 70s, using practical effects to confuse the feelings we’re least proud of. This is a film about guilt, depression, and the feeling of stasis.
Gavankar and Schelling shared that they’ve “always wanted to make work that examines the part of ourselves we’re least proud of. Sometimes before we can move on, we are forced to vomit our past or sit in the mess we’ve made,” and this is what creating Stucco was for them. The theme of confronting old wounds, depression, and guilt stemming from the past head-on is palpable in the short where horror is used to challenge the protagonist, J, played wonderfully by Gavankar, to face her deepest, darkest fears and lingering scars in a physical manifestation that is superbly horrifying. Parts of the short are intentionally disturbing as the struggles J is going through are not meant to be taken lightly, the suffocating fear of even stepping outside of her house (arguably, a bit unexpectedly timely) consuming her as her monster grows stronger. J ultimately has to decide whether to give in to her own “madness” or fight her way out. Complete with surprising — often faceless — guest stars, beautiful cinematography, and symbolism, Stucco is a unique short that explores very real issues in a way that only horror sometimes can.
Stucco received the Special Jury Recognition for Creature Design as a Midnight Short for the SXSW 2020 Film Festival Awards. “We wish to highlight the beautifully grotesque and deeply unsettling creature design of Stucco. Clive Barker would be proud, which is why we award the short the Special Jury Recognition for Creature Design!” said the Midnight Shorts film festival jury. The short also stars Debra Messing, Michael Ealy, Colton Haynes, Aisha Tyler, Bel Powley, and Leslie Odom Jr. You can watch the full short here.
Written and directed by Emmy-nominated Viceland director Daniel Newell Kaufman with cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra, Runon stars Erin Markey, Luke Visagie, and Mike Alonzo. In the story, all Luke and his mom have are two garbage full of clothes, and two tickets out of town on the midnight Greyhound. Like he’s assembling a puzzle, Luke has to figure out the why of it all before the person they’re running from puts together the pieces. Runon is a short film that is a run-on sentence, done as one rambling handheld take about a pair of run-on people: nomads trying to escape their very nature.
I’m a big fan of the many shorts that were meant to screen at SXSW, but Runon is a stand-out that has stayed firmly embedded in my mind ever since I first watched it. I really don’t want to spoil anything that happens as the short is, on the surface, a mystery (who are they running from, where are they going, and why?) and at its core is a very chaotic, dark, and profound story confronting many complex emotions stemming from a boy’s relationship with his mother who is struggling with her own demons, both internally and externally. The actors were superb onscreen, matched by the clever use of sound and the magnificent work offscreen that sucks you in and leaves you feeling rattled and unsure from one second to the next. You’re never really sure what’s going to happen to Luke or his mother as the seconds go by, whether they will find their freedom together, not at all, or if Luke should be seeking his own path as he unravels this confusing and scary situation. I appreciated the haunting narrative and the approach taken to telling this story, and I will never forget certain moments or pieces of dialogue (“It’s raining on all of our faces”) for as long as I live.
The story feels very personal, which makes sense considering that Kaufman shared he comes from a “family peppered with a history of alcoholism and mental illness” and that, like Luke, his time with his mother was “mixed love and chaos in equal parts” bringing him the “humble realization that in the moment we were both equally powerless.” As Kaufman shared, the film “is about the painful catharsis of breaking free–of stepping onto your own path to break out of a karmic loop–hence the film’s visual structure as a broken circle.” Kaufman also touched on the “commonality shared by everyone in that distinct American limbo” of riding around on Greyhound buses, touching on how the story and those experiences reflect the “intergenerational story” of his own “nomadic family.”
Directed by John Poliquin who co-wrote the script with Colin Minihan, the short exists in a world where social media app Selfie dominates over Instagram and TikTok, and insecure teenager Sarah (Peyton Kennedy) has had enough. She no longer wants to subscribe to the culture of presenting a perfect online persona. In a moment of clarity, Sarah makes the unpopular decision to delete her accounts. But, the “perfect” version of herself that she’s given power to online won’t be deleted that easily…
If you’re looking for a genuinely creepy, gory, and everything-you-want from a simplistic horror tale, Selfie is the short for you. The story puts our current societal obsession with apps, selfies, self-image, and altered online characters front and center, focusing less on slamming any revelatory message home and sticking closer to its freaky roots as the “perfect” monstrous version of young Sarah attempts to take over her life (and false persona) in the most violent way possible. With a b-horror movie vibe, Selfie is enjoyable for what it is; where it really stands out is its sudden and shocking ending that left my jaw hitting the floor.
From writer and director Ashley Eakin, the logline for Single is pretty simple: A girl named Kim (Delaney Feener) born with one arm gets set-up with a guy named Jake (Jordan Wiseley) who has one hand… and she is pissed!
As someone who has never been a huge fan of romcoms, I appreciate the unexpected turn Single takes almost immediately, throwing out every expectation I had when I hit play. While there is some bonding between Kim and Jake over the way they are treated and seen by others because of their disabilities, the situation doesn’t play out where either one of them is required to suddenly go googly-eyed and fall in love with the other. This anti-romance comedy isn’t so much giving a middle finger to love but instead giving a chance for legitimate connections to begin — or not at all — without the pressures of giving in to societal demands over who others think we should be with or where we fit. Despite being slightly thrown by MTV’s The Challenge’s Jordan Wiseley playing one of two leads in the short (it was difficult at first to see him as Jake and not as snarky Jordan as someone who has never missed a season of The Challenge in way too many years), both Wiseley and especially Feener give fun performances in a refreshing take on how we don’t have to go along with anyone else’s “plan” and can do what feels best for ourselves; we are allowed to go after what we want without bending to another person’s “norm.” Single also gives a voice to the experiences disabled people go through, including the differing — and equally valid — perspectives those within the community have when it comes to whether they even feel comfortable being labeled as such.
Single received Special Jury Recognition in the SXSW 2020 Short Film Grand Jury Awards. “A comedic short with wit and bite, Single subverts viewers’ expectations with purpose and an unapologetic voice. The layered performances are also worthy of commendation,” said the Narrative Shorts film festival jury.