Film Review: 2017 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour

This batch of seven international short films screened at the most recent Sundance Film Festival are less varied than in years past—with melancholy as a consistent mood and theme.
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Every year, the Sundance folks put together the most highly regarded shorts from their festival and release the group together as one feature. The 2017 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour edition seems as if the different filmmakers consulted on each other’s works (not true), or that the festival people chose films that connect to one another, at least more than in previous years (a likely scenario). Fortunately, there are also fewer highs and lows in quality than before.

So everything is worthwhile, starting with the first piece, Kristen Stewart’s “Come Swim” (one of several U.S. entries), which is a largely impressionistic, sometimes confusing exploration into a young man’s struggle to maintain his sanity in the face of despair. Hollywood star Stewart (of Twilight series fame) makes her directorial debut and employs jump-cutting and odd angles to mirror the man’s fragmented existence in a way that echoes Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven (1993) and the oeuvre of Darren Aronofsky. “Come Swim” isn’t necessarily original but it isn’t poorly made either, and its inclusion was probably not based solely on the natural curiosity regarding Stewart’s chops behind the camera.

“5 Films About Technology” (a Canadian entry), from writer-director Peter Huang, is a lighter work, linking together five separate one-minute glimpses into the way contemporary social media can create among its users awkwardness, misunderstandings or sometimes something worse. Despite the Jacques Tati-style humor and a clever use of “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker Suite, there is something sad, even tragic about the lack of perspicacity of the many characters and Huang conveys that message without being overly didactic.

“Night Shift” (from the U.S.) is like a hip-hop The Last Laugh (1924), the silent German classic about a fired hotel doorman reduced to taking a job as a bathroom attendant. This time, the bathroom attendant is a dignified African-American in a L.A. nightclub who endures a steady run of humiliating encounters with obnoxious club patrons. Meanwhile, he obsesses over the pending breakup with his significant other. Marshall Tyler’s writing and direction is spot-on until a denouement much more hopeful and upbeat than expected.

“Lucia, Before and After” (also U.S.) is an affecting tale from writer-director Anu Valia about a young woman’s effort to get an abortion in one of many areas of the country (Texas, in this case) that have forced legal restrictions on this deeply personal decision. Valia takes us into the woman’s first-person experience as she receives a mandated sonogram before her 24-hour waiting period, but the director also skillfully integrates practical information in documentary style. (The film won the Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction.)

“Ten Meter Tower” (from Sweden) is the one true documentary (at least we presume it so), as co-directors Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson fix their camera on a series of people who must decide whether or not to take the plunge off a 10-meter diving board (that’s roughly 33 feet high). Most of the men and women express hesitation and some never make the jump or dive; the peer pressure is nearly palpable at times in what becomes a sharp though deceptively simple observation of human behavior. There is genuine drama—even with the static camera set up at a distance—and an element of suspense, accentuated by a smart use of split-screen, in the best entry in the collection.

“Pussy” (from Poland) is the lone animated short, but director Renata Gasiorowska blends other genres as well, from comedy to porn to fantasy to horror. What could have been quite a funny sketch about a young woman’s constantly interrupted attempt to spend an afternoon masturbating in her apartment turns into a very peculiar narrative with a primitive, sometimes graphic, sometimes abstract animation style that is a matter of taste.

“And The Whole Sky Fit In The Dead Cow's Eye” (from Chile) is highly impressive as a short story told with a measure of magical realism about an elderly farm woman thinking that death (in the form of a ghost) has come for her, yet what she finds instead is even more unsettling. Director Francisca Alegría’s production, which won the Sundance Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction, is probably the most accomplished of all the shorts (in terms of camerawork, editing, scoring, performance, et al.) but might leave some viewers mystified at the ending.

All in all, there are no clinkers in the 2017 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour, which may be difficult to find in theatres but could be a better experience than many a full-length story film.