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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Focus (2014)

Director: Matt Chesin
Stars: Julia Severance, Christopher Bradley, Erus Harrington and Mike Rolfe
This film was an official selection at Filmstock 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of all 2014 films.
There’s a lot going on in a short amount of time in Focus, a fourteen minute short made at ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre early in 2014. It’s usually described as a drama, under which banner it’s won awards, but I’m screening it at LepreCon 41 in a science fiction set with a time travel theme and it could easily be categorised as fantasy. The drama is in the emotions that the story arouses in the viewers and characters alike, while it moves into genre territory to allow them to happen. It gets ruthlessly emotional by the finalĂ©, but I think it works because it’s never, erm, focused on a single subject. The story is framed around one girl, Sloan Beck, but she’s not the only recipient of that emotional buildup and it covers more than just one issue even for her. Maybe this is why I wasn’t as fond of this on my first viewing, but it built well each successive time through. The script is strong, written by Christopher Bradley and developed by Jeff Lynn, Brian Kiefling and director Matt Chesin; it just takes a couple of viewings to grasp it all properly.

Sloan is a precocious young lady, way ahead of the rest of her photography class but taking it seriously and finding a lot of fault in her work. She’s naturally horrified to find that her dad has pawned her laptop and her camera lenses, not only because it’ll affect her schoolwork but because all the pictures she had to remember her mother are now gone. Dad is a broken but barking Christopher Bradley, looking awful and sounding believably worse, but he’s only here briefly to set up that heartache and set Sloan on the road to a local photography store to find a new used lens. This is important because, when she connects it to her camera and experiments with it in the desert, it highlights more than was there at the time. How she reacts to this discovery and where it leads her, you’ll need to find out yourself because that way lie spoilers I’m not willing to expose. Suffice it to say that there’s a big picture here that hasn’t yet found its focus and I honestly wasn’t trying to throw out photography pun after pun but they just happened.
Julia Severance is decent as Sloan and she has some very good moments indeed in what I believe is her debut on film, but she does seem to be trying too hard for much of it. It wouldn’t have mattered in a less well cast piece, but there are points, especially when she’s interacting with others, where she could have been more natural. Christopher Bradley is resonant in his brief appearance and Mike Rolfe is excellent as a character who is almost the exact opposite: a father figure who is smooth where Mr Beck is abrasive and compassionate where he’s ruthless. Erus Harrington impressed me too as a young man believably out of time. He’s shot in colour for the most part, but I remember his role in black and white because he feels so close to the kids who mixed capability and innocence so well in movies from the thirties and into the forties. The opening scene could have begun an old Monogram mystery movie with child detectives solving the case that the adults couldn’t.

Technically, this excels but watching the credits afresh highlights a lot of good names that I’ve seen on a lot of good credit lists. Cinematographer Jason Ryan, who keeps the camera notably moving throughout, is especially racking up a heck of a portfolio, but he’s not alone in that. However, Kendall Humbert, who edited the film with aplomb, apparently hasn’t done anything before this, at least according to IMDb. I’m sure that will change soon. The only negative aspect on the technical side is that there’s too much wind in the outdoor desert scenes, a curse that’s particularly prominent in Arizona filmmaking but one that’s not horrendous here. We can still hear everything we want to hear, but that wind could still have been a little less prominent in the mix. At the end of the day, this comes back to the script, which is deceptively full of clever little details. A cynic might find fault with the emotional manipulation but, even though I’ve seen it all, it caught at my throat too and I’m certainly not complaining at how well it did so.

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