Friday 4 July 2014

The Sisters (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Noah Lanouette, John Miller, Mark DeBoer, Michelle Allen, Ron Foltz, Anne Gentry and Helen Sanger Pierce and Robert Peters
Having set himself the scarily ambitious task of making 52 short films in 52 short weeks, I have no doubt that Travis Mills understood how important the first of them would be, both practically and symbolically. It could be that the success of the entire project owes a great deal to the success of its first shoot, which is highlighted in the first episode of the web series Running Wild Films made as they went to document the project and maintain public interest in it. 'We never fell behind schedule, thanks to the cast and crew,' he noted confidently to the camera, adding, 'We did not rush or compromise quality and I believe we left this weekend with footage that will cut together into a good short film.' It is indeed a good film, though it's far from a great one. It could easily be described as a safe first picture to set the project in motion, with few set-ups, a host of short, mostly safe performances and with its ambition apparent mostly in what Mills changed from the source story, adding mild subversion and emphasising both beginning and growth.

Perhaps The Sisters works best as a beginning, which it became in so many ways. It was the first film shot for this project and the first to be screened at the three day festival during which all 52 films were shown. It was adapted from the first of the fifteen stories in James Joyce's 1914 collection, Dubliners, obviously a key work for Mills because he would go on to adapt every one of them for this project, almost entirely in order too. It was even the first story Joyce ever wrote, under the pseudonym of Stephen D├Ždulus back in 1904 for a weekly paper called The Irish Homestead. While there are a number of themes woven into the story, the main one is also concerned with a beginning, that of the adult life of the boy who recounts it, prompted by the death of an old man whom he had befriended. Mills even emphasises it in this version with the addition of an unlikely baptism and especially through use of the old man's pipe, not mentioned in the original story but here a strong symbol of the fascinating yet dangerous world of adulthood.
Unfortunately the writing is stronger than the performances tasked with bringing it to life, though, to be fair, none of the actors get enough screen time to allow them to get their teeth into their roles. Anchoring the piece is young actor Noah Lanouette, recently seen in two other impressive child-focused short films from different directors, Marcus Stricklin's The Tent and Darrin Moore's Technically Grounded. He has just the right combination of awkwardness and openness to work well as James and he maintains the focus of attention throughout, even with a mere two lines of dialogue, less than almost everyone else in the cast. While the story is always about James and the old man, deceased before the story begins, it's told by the adult characters talking either over or around him, as if he wasn't there. His ascent to adulthood may be realised best through the fact that, given the script's progression in Mills's contemporary adaptation, not one of them is likely to do it again.

The adults are all lesser characters, set in their ways and with little of interest to see. Michelle Allen has the toughest task as James's mother, because her character has only banalities to say. She looks fine but is too deliberate with her voice, too precise on her intonation. Her husband hasn't much to say either, but Mark DeBoer gifts him with a little more character, sprawling on a chair. It's Ron Foltz as the other adult in the conversation, who has much more to give us. He's smarmily pressing, insinuating inappropriateness between the boy and the old man. He makes 'He never got married' an accusation of both homosexuality and paedophilia, the overt choral music serving as a reminder that the old man in the Joyce story was an Irish Catholic priest with the sad century of revelations since underlining that insinuation. Anne Gentry is also strong as one of the old man's sisters, with just the right combination of elegaic sadness and cheery front. Helen Sanger Pierce is weaker as the other but still has her moments.

Of course, the only reason that Running Wild Films could even consider undertaking (no pun intended) a project as ambitious as this is the fact that their slim crew has become over a whole slew of short films, a well-oiled machine. When the pictures they enter into 48 hour film challenges are comparable in quality to those they take more time over, it's clear that they can do what they do quickly and efficiently. This is a strong film technically, the weakest link being the highly unambitious editing, comprised of lots of back and forth cuts of static shots. Perhaps the disconnection that approach suggests is appropriate, but there were opportunities for the camera to move and join in the story that weren't taken. Perhaps subconscious worry about adding complications to the first film in a long project might have contributed to that choice. Perhaps Mills and his crew just wanted to get this one in the can safely and move forward to longer and more ambitious films. The Sisters works well as a beginning, but it could easily have been more.

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