Saturday 3 August 2013

Star Babies (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Jane Fendelman, Michael Coleman and Michelle Palermo
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
If Escort Driver was disappointing, Star Babies turned out to be anything but. A co-production between Running Wild Films and 5J Media, it played late in the IFP Beat the Clock challenge for short films shot in a mere 48 hours, and immediately stamped its presence on the competition. From the first shot, it played as if it was slumming it from the next league up and it only got better. 24 teams entered Beat the Clock this year and 22 submitted films for screening at the Phoenix Art Museum last Friday night. 16 of them met the eligibility requirements to be in competition and Star Babies unsurprisingly turned out to win for Best Film. Michelle Palermo also won as Best Actress and Running Wild's regular sound man, the apparently infallible James Alire, took home yet another trophy to add to what must now be quite a collection. His work tends to be so seamless that we don't even notice it, except when one of his films plays alongside those of others and then its quality is as noticeable as noticeable can be.

While Star Babies was the only viable winner from this selection, it actually succeeds on a few levels. On the most obvious, it's a well made film on every front. It's shot well, acted well and written well. It zooms along with never a dull moment, the twist being as neatly accomplished as it was telegraphed. Technically, it's yet another emphatic reminder from Running Wild, who are now almost two thirds of the way through 52 Short Films in 52 Weeks, that they can make good films quickly. Most production companies will never make 52 films, let alone in 52 weeks, but what to them would be an insanely ambitious challenge is merely becoming another project to Running Wild. Mills and his crew are apparently so on top of it that they can finish up a feature, The Men Who Robbed the Bank, for a premiere this month at Tempe Pollack Theaters and not just take time out to make another film for a 48 hour challenge but to win it too. The absence of key competitors doesn't lessen that achievement.
While viewers new to Running Wild are likely to enjoy Star Babies, those familiar with their growing body of work are likely to enjoy it even more. It could even be suggested (and yeah, I'll do just that) that there's an additional punchline behind the twist that's there as an in joke for regular fans. There are two actors who work together at Running Wild so frequently that their roles are becoming less the characters they play in individual films and more an undercurrent running through those characters over a wider body of work: Michael Hanelin is Travis Mills's everyman and Colleen Hartnett is his lady of unattainability. We thought they'd get together in Friday Nights Alone, but it didn't happen. Maybe they got together in The Memory Ride, but the story ends before we know for sure. Both are in The Men Who Robbed the Bank, but I haven't seen it yet so don't know if they even share scenes. Mills shook all that up here hilariously with a pair of cameo roles for Hanelin and Hartnett.

What may be most hilarious is that the punchline stands out despite those cameo appearances having no impact on the drive of the film. Its stars are Michelle Palermo and Running Wild perennial Michael Coleman, who play brother and sister, Mike and Michelle. Yet, while they are absolutely the focus and they do their jobs very well indeed, their screen mum, Jane Fendelman, ruthlessly steals the show out from under them every time she's on screen. Equal parts mother, angel and new age hippie love child, she's a delight from the moment we see her first. She swoops into the house in a rainbow of a dress, throws, 'Hello, my darling star babies, how are you shining today?' into the air and exits stage left. It's such a quintessential sitcom entrance that I was actually shocked by the absence of a laugh track. She never lets up when she's on screen and I don't think there's a new age buzzword that she missed. It's hard to pick a favourite, but her use of the Higgs field in conversation particularly tickled me.
What little story there is revolves around Mike and Michelle trying to set each other up with others and getting increasingly frustrated when absolutely nothing happens. This provides a great opportunity for Seth Gandrud to pretend he's in a romantic slow motion montage and Stacie Stocker to play a damsel in distress, but it's an even better opportunity for the story to emphasise where it's going. Palermo and Coleman don't even have to do anything to help it along, just take advantage and add nuance to their characters, before the script lets them in on the big secret that everyone else twigged at the outset. It isn't a subtle story, but it's lean and emphatic and it's hard to find a flaw in it. The first Travis Mills film I reviewed, Shine Like Gold, was also a Beat the Clock winner and much of what I said about it applies here too: 'slick and polished', 'simple but effective', 'full of palpable technique'. The difference is that this didn't leave me dry. It's uplifting without trying to be and it'll piss off all the right people.

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