Fantasia 2020 Short Films – A Strange Calm, Break Us, Dead Birds and Regret

A STRANGE CALM (from USA, directed by Austin Rourke, this film was paired with Free Country at Fantasia Film Festival).

A Strange Calm (pictured in the featured image) combines an escalating fight for survival with the curiosity within adolescents, like Stephen King in Stand by Me. The film follows Rosie (Giovanni Bush) and Miles (Jacob Sandler) – who are on their way to the Top of the World to watch the fireworks display on the Fourth of July. On their way there, they encounter a man called Frank (Price Carson) who puts the two kids in a fight for their lives.

The way Rourke weaves in aspects of animalistic nature is interesting; as it’s very much a hunter and hunted kind-of film. Rourke brings up the fact that jaguars are the only animals that hunt for fun. It’s intriguing how he shows animals and humans are one-in-the-same and the usage of deer antlers in the film’s imagery is memorable. There’s a shot here that is great for symbolism, even if it feels anticlimactic in the moment.

I liked the dialogue in this film, too, as the train-of-thought, like when Miles brings up the fact about jaguars, feels natural for a kid as he bounces off a conversation topic of Frank showing a taxidermized deer. The child acting is also strong here, and that helps keep interest. A Strange Calm is a neat little thriller and handles its thrills and simple adventure of trying to see some fireworks with a strong balance. It’s also so well-shot by Joel E. Schaeffer, as the scenic views complement the film so well.

Score: 75/100

Note about this film: I will be posting an interview with writer/director Andrew Rourke next week. 

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Danielle Galligan in Break Us. (Photo courtesy of Fantasia Film Festival.)

BREAK US (from Ireland, directed by Rioghnach Ni Ghrioghair, this film was a part of the Born of Woman 2020 program at Fantasia Film Festival).

Break Us follows a couple who are about to rob a post office. As Sophie (Danielle Galligan) assumes the role of the “hostage,” she and Mark (Gavin Drea) learn about their relationship.

A small story that creates smart characters and shows we learn the most about each other in stressful situations. I also love heist films, so that adds a cool layer for me. It’s very much about the relationship, and while I don’t think this film will leave a lasting impression, it’s worth the nine minutes to watch it because of the performances.

Score: 63/100

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Brent Skagford in Regret. (Photo courtesy of Fantasia Film Festival.)

REGRET (from Canada, directed by Santiago Menghini, this film was paired with Come True at Fantasia Film Festival).

Santiago Menghini’s Regret follows a man named Wayne (Brent Skagford) who is staying in a hotel for business. He’s just learned his father has passed, and he must survive the manifestations of his inner demons over the course of the night.

This short immediately had my attention from the shots from street level of office buildings or hotels in what looks like downtown Toronto. Then, the horror hits and the short gets better. There’s a great sense of dread created by Santiago Menghini, and that dread starts with a phone call.

I already hate hotels and this short makes them more unnerving with the creepiness that’s lurking within Wayne’s room. I found the last shot a little underwhelming, but the short in general is strong and very creepy.

Score: 88/100

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Shannon Tarbet in Dead Birds. (Photo courtesy of Fantasia Film Festival.)

DEAD BIRDS (from United Kingdom, directed by Johnny Kenton, this film was paired with The Mortuary Collection at Fantasia Film Festival).

A bizarro combination of faith and sport, Johnny Kenton’s Dead Birds follows Elsa (Shannon Tarbet) – nicknamed “Birdie” – a badminton player at an all-girls Catholic boarding school is visited by a saint (Luke Newberry) because she wants to play a bigger role in the team’s upcoming tournament. The saint, Sebastian, wants her to complete three tasks so she will get her wish.

At first it sounds like A Christmas Carol with the tasks she has to complete, but each task is stranger than the last and the film goes in surprising directions. If you go into this film expecting something truly out there, you’ll get that wish. If you want only a quirky badminton comedy, look elsewhere (though this is the closest thing we have to that). There is quirky comedy here and badminton, but Kenton’s vision is truly unique.

There’s enough here to turn it into a feature at 34 minutes, and even at 10 minutes longer, it would be considered a “feature film.” However, the pacing’s strong as is as we learn about Elsa and why she wants this so badly – and that strictly lies with her mother Suzy (Tara Fitzgerald), who was once a great badminton player at this very same school. There’s a trophy shrine in the hallway by the gym just to her mother.

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Lydia Wilson in Dead Birds. (Photo courtesy of Fantasia Film Festival.)

I enjoy the overbearing parent aspect in sports films; but I didn’t believe the mom character and she hurt some of my enjoyment with this film. The mom is unusually cruel and feels over-the-top. That is the point – but her smiling and her glee at her daughter’s failure doesn’t make sense to me in terms of motivation, and just made me angry. Again: Provoking anger is Kenton’s intention (as well as Amelia Spencer’s attention, who writes the screenplay), but I would have liked a stronger reason for the cruelty.

Otherwise, I was able to enjoy this film and I loved the colours in different scenes and I liked the character of Elsa, as well as fellow teammate Rose (Synnove Karlsen) and how she comes into play. Kenton truly does set this film up from the beginning as telling you things will get weird, and that’s mostly with the look of Saint Sebastian: He’s in his underwear and has arrows shot through his body, like a demented Cupid. I wouldn’t trust him looking like that. It’s a bonkers fantasy story mixed with a lot of attempts at comedy, though this isn’t as funny as I hoped it would be.

The film’s always zany and ends in a wild way. It’s also a strangely mean-spirited little film at times, going to way darker places than I’d ever expected. It’s very much a black comedy and the actual badminton takes a backseat to the relationship with Birdie and her mother and other characters. Shannon Tarbet has a fun turn as Birdie, though. If you want a unique film, watch it; and prepare for surprises that you might not always love.

Score: 63/100

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