There is no doubt the quartet of new short films from Spy Hop Production’s 12th annual PitchNic premiere – two fiction and two documentaries – which were screened last week before a sold-out Jeanne Wagner Theatre audience will find plenty of life on the independent film festival circuit in Utah and around the country.
All four films conceivably could find their way, for example, into Fear No Film at the Utah Arts Festival, which featured 65 short films this year and has come into its own as an international juried event, attracting a record of nearly 500 submissions from around the world. Two of the films merit serious consideration as nominees for Fear No Film’s Utah Short Film of the Year competition. Certainly, all four will join the other 40 PitchNic films which have screened in more than 30 different film festivals around the country.
To the delight of an audience that asked plenty of questions after each film was screened, the students, working with mentors Josh Samson and Shannalee Otanez, demonstrated just how their creative work serves to stimulate and sustain enlightened views leading to social and cultural awareness and even change.
The opening film ‘Chasing Death’ effectively mixes scenes of ghost hunting, a Tarot card reading, and high-tech paranormal investigation with the refreshingly positive thoughts of a University of Utah sociology professor who examines the culture of religion especially as it pertains to death and the afterlife and a local Buddhist priest who had his own near-death experience. There are hints of ‘The Blair Witch’ treatment in clips from the local Grimm Ghost Tours which include visiting the site believe to be inhabited by serial killer Ted Bundy who was executed and following a paranormal investigator who gives the students (Abby Pincock-Christiansen, director; Sydney Cahoon, producer; Amber Rose Dwyer, cinematographer) a chance to be directly involved in the hunt for ghosts. Yet, the filmmakers give it the right understated treatment, making it clear that it’s okay to believe or to be skeptical about it.
In more serious moments, ‘Chasing Death’ though explores pretty well what we really want to understand in confronting fascination with death and the afterlife that goes far beyond the curiosity or desire for adventure and thrill. Indeed, it is the Buddhist priest who says the idea of ‘chasing death’ may guide us to the best path for understanding the psychology behind our individual and collective obsessions with death.
‘Going Mad,’ the first fictional short of the night, immediately grabs the audience attention with a driving opening musical sequence. An audacious student film in every respect, ‘Going Mad’ (George Metos, director; Alex Gruneich, producer; Daela Tipton, cinematographer, and Elizabeth Curland, production designer) takes its broader cues from the disturbing psychiatric undertones of the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ stories and transforms it into a quite sophisticated experimental rock musical short. Alistair (played by Nick Markham), the teen protagonist, admits himself to a hospital psychiatric ward, and slowly becomes aware of the threats to his capacity for returning to a healthy sense of reality. A diagnosed schizophrenic with a substance abuse problem, Alistair is jittery and increasingly perplexed, especially as he hears his hallucinatory confidant ‘Grey,’ (played by Jyllian Petrie) a woman who is plain spoken and confident and whispers repeatedly to the young man.
The cold, clinical feel of the spoken scenes mingles effectively with the short, smartly orchestrated musical song sequences, especially in a group therapy session. The film rounds out nicely with characters such as the psychiatrist (played by Elizabeth Hales) who seems reasonable enough as a sensitive listener and a paranoid man (‘Charlie,’ played by Charley Spolar) who seeks Alistair’s attention by talking incoherently about conspiracies in the hospital. Some tightening in the pacing and a bit more compacting in the spoken sequences would make this little experimental musical pack an impressive punch. The filmmaking team worked extensively with Jeremy Chatelain, Spy Hop’s musicology mentor, and his students in putting Metos’ lyrics to music.
‘Return With Honor’ exemplifies the most beneficial aspects of Spy Hop’s mentoring platform, especially as the film deals with the near-taboo topic of young missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who return early because of mental health pressures and difficulties in dealing with social and personal anxiety. An emotional film in many regards, nevertheless the filmmakers (Madi Palmer, director; Lauren Finlinson, producer, and Ryann Beelar, cinematographer) stake out an understated platform that asks for compassionate, sensitive listening. It is an impressively mature treatment in every regard.
Three stories are shared, including those of two young men who were most candid about how they are trying to deal with and overcome the profound sense of failure that often is reported among missionaries who cut their years of service short. The third comes from a mother whose son never could overcome the guilt or shame of cutting his mission short and ended up committing suicide 19 years after he returned. For the two young men, their returns are mixed experiences when it comes to responses from their loved ones and fellow congregations. Some seem willing to reassure sincerely while others struggle with the awkwardness of trying to find the right words. And, then some responses seem brutal if not bizarre. One says his parents are disappointed after having invested so much money and effort in getting their son ready for a mission. Another says a church member pulled him aside, offering to perform an exorcism.
The filmmakers strike a muted yet hopeful tone for acceptance, with scenes showing an LDS ward bishop who acknowledges the importance of dealing with an issue that often has been forced into the shadows as well as a clinical therapist who deals extensively with returned missionaries.
‘Return With Honor’ is an outstanding effort that clearly belongs among the 2015 candidates for the Utah Short Film of The Year competition. As one of the young men says near the end of the film, even though he had to end abruptly his call to service he believes that his return accomplishes the mission of making people aware of an issue that perhaps is not as isolated as some might believe and that a compassionate, humane ear and voice can be helpful for those dealing with the struggles of returning from their mission with honor.
Likewise, ‘Cream Puff,’ which drew many well-deserved roars of laughter from the theater, is a solid candidate for Utah Short Film of the Year honors. In many aspects, it is among the most well developed and well acted fictional shorts created under the PitchNic auspices. Virtually every bit of comedy resonates with the natural comfort and ease of the young filmmakers’ voices in a wonderfully life-affirming story about a gay teen who now faces, for the second time, the coming out process but this time at his new high school in Utah during his senior year.
The film sparkles in every bit and with some small tweaks the filmmakers intend to make in readying their work for festival submissions, it will be a huge audience pleaser. It is no exaggeration to say the ‘Cream Puff’ short has much more satisfying comedy than many feature-length coming-of-age comedies.
The film succeeds because the voices are believable in every aspect in front and behind the camera. Indeed, David Jenny’s script is easily embraced by the four main actors. Austin Haws plays the main character Bryce by striking consistently the right tones of a reserved, nervous, shy teen who worries about how others see him. And like some other classic teen comedies, the character breaks through the fourth wall. Jon Tatum makes Alex an adorable dork who befriends Bryce and enjoys B-cult horror films, an activity also enjoyed by Paige (played by Mikayla Iverson), a popular student at the school but who also is hiding her own hesitations about her image. Rounding out the main cast is Nathan (Nico Thronson), who also is gay but is comfortable in his own identity and popularity and effectively guides some of the film’s funniest moments.
The lines seem so devilishly simple but are on point in a character’s teen voice and tone. In an early scene, Bryce is showering after gym and notices Nathan, who immediately catches the new student taking a quick peek at his body. Bryce turns to the audience, and says telling a joke will help him keep his cover. Of course, it’s rambling and awkward: “Sorry, I have ADD so sometimes I catch myself zoning out and staring at a point in space in this case it happens to be your butt. But when I am looking at your butt I am not thinking about your butt if that makes sense. I could be thinking about sports barbecues, ‘Die Hard,’ or other manly things that are not your butt. So if you excuse me I am going to continue washing my hair. And I’ll find a different zone spot.”
The comedy — in which not just Bryce overcomes his fears but so do Alex and Paige — is an enlightening and heartening confirmation that the lessons of national viral video campaigns such as Dan Savage’s ‘It Gets Better’ did achieve a broad positive cultural shift in acceptance.
A new group of students already has begun the work on PitchNic films for next year, eager to raise the impressive bar of achievement yet another notch.