Saturday 7 December 2013

After the Beep (2013)

Director: Kyle Gerkin
Stars: Shellie Ulrich, Jane Fendelman, John Hartnett, Kyle Gerkin, Dulaney Gerkin and Colleen Hartnett
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.
I've said in a few IFP Mystery Box reviews that the average quality of submissions was higher than for Beat the Clock in July, but that reflects fewer awful films more accurately than it does more great ones; the majority still sat in the middle. Only three qualifying Beat the Clock films made it past my OK pivot, along with two more that weren't eligible for awards. Here, six did but only one stood out as excellent. That's After the Beep, even more clear a winner at Mystery Box than Star Babies was at Beat the Clock. To my thinking, Kyle Gerkin's deceptively simple piece is surely the best IFP film challenge submission since last year's La Lucha. It also looks nothing like the usual challenge film, given that the star of the show is an answering machine, an old boxy looking thing at that. The key support, quite literally for a change, comes from a table. Why? Because they're the only constants throughout, as they accompany a lifetime of experience that we hear about in messages and see in periphery.

This connected with me personally. I come from a family that doesn't throw things out if they still work and my parents have screened all calls through an answerphone for thirty years. It doesn't look as old as this one but that's still my dad's voice on the message that plays every time I ring my mum and he died a dozen years ago. That answerphone hasn't witnessed quite as much as the one we see in After the Beep, but it's seen its fair share, enough that this I find this picture completely believable and very touching. It begins with a young lady, barely out of college, moving into her new home. We don't see it, or at least we see it only through what is presumably Colleen Hartnett's arm and the careful choice of props that surround her answerphone; instead we hear about it from a recording of her mum wishing her all the best. This is the sort of abstraction that often accompanies opening credits, but the genius here is to keep it up even once the director's name fades away. We just cut to the next life event.

The attention to detail here is superlative. This unnamed lady's life unfolds in seven vignettes, all with the same framing but otherwise completely different. The table remains in the same place throughout and the answerphone continues to do its job, but everything around them changes: not just the other items on the table, but the furniture around it, as well as the clothes and jewellery on the arm pressing buttons. Only one of the callers is repeated but none of the emotions that flow over the phone line are the same. One message is mostly incoherent, for good reason; another is cut off by a controlled button press; a third missing entirely, again for very good reason. The lady all these messages are for doesn't merely remain nameless, she remains silent too; but even with only an arm to watch, we see how she reacts in a completely different way to each message. It's amazing how much can really be told in five minutes with no faces and no cinematography.

The first win here is the decision to focus the film on the answerphone, an idea which apparently came from actor Shellie Ulrich. The next is Gerkin's script, distilled down to the essence of what it aims to say; there's no fat on these bones, perhaps appropriately for a skeletal story. Then there are the actors who are as strong through voice alone as most people manage with a whole body to use. The voices and names are recognisable: the cast and crew are mostly Meisner students who have either graduated or are due to graduate from the local program run by Kevin Phipps; most worked on Rabbit Hole, the all-Meisner play that ran so successfully at Stage 55 last month; and most are also IFP veterans. At Beat the Clock, Fendelman and Hartnett were both in the winning film, Star Babies, while Ulrich and Gerkin were The Neighbors, directed by Meisner coach Tommy Schaeffer. Phipps is creating a monster in the valley; who would bet against some of these folk winning the Breakout Challenge in January?

Correction: as Kyle points out in the comments (but not an answerphone message), it's Shellie Ulrich's arm not Colleen Hartnett's.


Kyle Gerkin said...

Thank you for the review, Hal. I'm glad you enjoyed the film.

Due to the constraints on running time imposed by the challenge, I wasn't able to include traditional post-film credits, matching actors to characters. Hence you being forced to guess who the hands might belong to. For the record, here is the cast list:

Main Character's Hands -- Shellie Ulrich
Voice of Mom -- Jane Fendelman
Voice of Sister -- Shellie Ulrich
Voice of Dad -- John Hartnett
Voice of Estranged Husband -- Kyle Gerkin
Voice of Daughter (Chloe) -- Colleen Hartnett
Chloe's Hands (Final Vignette) -- Dulaney Gerkin

Also, as a bit of trivia, there were originally two additional vignettes in the film, but they had to be cut to get under the five minute limit.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks, Kyle!

I was on the money with most of those, just not the one I mentioned. That's what happens when I assume... : )

You have me wondering what those additional vignettes would cover. I'm trying to think what would conjure up a different emotion. You've got hope, joy, satisfaction, fear, hate, worry and closure; what's missing? Relief at a job offer? Political spam for comedic effect?

Kyle Gerkin said...

I like the political spam idea, but sadly no. :-)

The original structure was four messages tracing "the rise", and four messages tracing "the fall" of her life. The "missing" vignettes included one from her future estranged husband after their first date when the relationship was full of nothing but promise, and one from her sister late in life, upset at the way she has abandoned their Alzheimer-stricken mother in a nursing home.

Given how well the film has been received, I wonder if it was a blessing in disguise that I was forced to cut them. I do think the scenes worked, but they may have stretched the audience's tolerance for looking at a single shot past the breaking point.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Yeah, I'm thinking the same.

I liked that the emotions were different each time and the callers were mostly unrepeated; the only one that was sounded completely different, for good reason.

This would have broken that framework for a different one.