This past week I found myself at my old alma mater as the University of Central Arkansas hosted five new short films written, directed and produced by the graduating class from UCA's Master's film program. This annual screening is an event I look forward to attending each year, though the pandemic years made the screening process a little more complicated.
My interest in these particular events stems from the fact that, years ago, I was once in these students' exact pairs of shoes -- standing figuratively naked in front of an audience of my peers and relatively friendly strangers as three years worth of my blood, sweat, and tears were projected on a massive screen. So I get a strange sense of satisfaction seeing a younger class of filmmakers go through that same ringer. The screenings are also a sort of barometer, to gauge the progress of UCA's film program as well as to measure the state of Arkansas' film scene, since the students working on these films will presumably be taking the reins of Arkansas cinema in the near future. So at least for me, there was a lot at stake in this 90 minutes worth of films.
As I made my way to Reynolds Performance Hall at UCA, memories of my graduate thesis screening flooded my thoughts. How I was working on the final edit of my film, "The Town Where Nobody Lives," up until hours before the screening. How I had spent weeks sleeping in the editing bays on campus as I worked with my colorist and sound designer and my VFX artist -- each of us housed in our own cubicle -- making last minute adjustments to make sure every frame was perfect.
As I sneaked into the darkest part of the back row of the theater, trying to remain undetected, I wondered if this spry young group of filmmakers went through the painstaking lengths that I had. From the darkness, I spied on the students as they greeted friends and family at the theater doors, listening in to their brief conversations. I could hear their nerves, their excitement, their exhaustion, their fear coupled together, hidden in every syllable they uttered. For some reason, this gave me solace and hope for the quality of the movies I was about to watch.
The first film to screen was Tucker Dickerson's "Rebound," which I thought was going to be about basketball, but instead I was treated to a 20 minute stoner comedy about a high schooler trying to lose his virginity by agreeing to be the rebound for a girl that's way out of his league. The film has some good laughs and the acting is strong enough, especially considering this is still technically a student film. Dickerson has a clear style and vision that he executed to near perfection, and in a lot of ways it's like a toned down version of "Superbad" (2007).
There were two things, though, that threw me off about "Rebound": first, it's a high school movie, but the actors all look like they are in their 20s, which is just a minor nitpick. My main issue was with the aspect ratio. The opening scene is 4:3, and then as the movie enters its second act, it switches to widescreen, and in its third act the ratio switches once again. I found it inexplicable and distracting and -- despite the film's content -- somewhat pretentious, which is ironic since during the Q&A after the show, Dickerson claims to have never been called pretentious before.
The second film was the awkwardly titled "Arkywood," directed by Summit Kumar. The title doesn't really tell us much about the plot, more so, it tells us more about Kumar himself as he is a transplant from Nepal, which is a region that is heavily Bollywood-inspired. Now, there's no big song and dance numbers in Kumar's film; in fact, it has more in common with classic Hollywood than it does anything from the Indian film market.
The plot revolves around a young Black filmmaker who, after a night of drinking and debauchery, contemplates suicide, only to have a ghostly-like spirit step in to be his conscience. In a previous interview I conducted with Kumar, he cited the Blaxploitation genre as a major influence for him, and "Arkywood" does play out like an urban version of "It's A Wonderful Life." Though the film ultimately is rough around the edges, especially when it comes to pacing as some scenes linger longer than they should, the lead actor, Dalton Carroll, gives a really strong performance that helps to cover up the few structural flaws the film has.
Next up was "Mono No Aware," directed by CJ Mirch. One of the more fascinating insider tidbits about these thesis films is that it's a long process from your initial idea to the screenwriting process, all the way through shooting up until the final screening. Usually the idea that you start with is quite a bit different from what you end up with, and of all the films from students I interviewed last year, Mirch's film probably changed the most. He had previously described it as a movie about two estranged sisters going on an adventure to discover the origins of a mysterious letter they stumble upon.
While the basic plot stays the same, the "adventure" part is toned way, way down but in a good way, and we end up with a story about the distance between the siblings. It plays out less like a movie and more like a visual poem -- like a segment from a Terrence Malick flick. This was easily the best shot film of the evening, and not only because it was photographed in all black and white, but rather the framing, the compositions, and the lighting unfold like a poem as well. Cinematographer Matt Goeke proves with this movie that he's got one of the best eyes and understanding of the cinematic language in Central Arkansas.
SO MUCH DIVERSITY
The next to last film was Nathaly Moreno's "Strawberries," which focuses on the generational tensions of a Hispanic family surrounding a girl's quinceañera. It's nice seeing so much diversity on the screen for a change. My graduating class consisted of three white males, and our movies weren't really the most diverse when it came to race and culture. That's what stands out about this short, the way that it evokes empathy and understanding toward a culture in such a complex way, whereas in most films you get a monolithic theme or view point.
Here we see the struggles in the relationship between the birthday girl -- who has spent most of her life in the U.S. -- and her cousin who longs for her homeland. It's a very complex story that's being told and my only complaint is that we didn't get more of it. In a perfect world, this short could have been stretched out perfectly to feature length.
It was at this point in the night that the one major complaint that I have about the student films that come out of UCA is still a pretty big issue. Students tend to cram a feature-length idea into a 20-minute short, causing the plot to feel overstuffed and/or characters underdeveloped. Writing a short is a completely different beast as opposed to writing a feature. They have an entirely different structure, but student's minds are conditioned to think in terms of features because of their lack of exposure to good short films. This structural problem was a problem for all of the day's movies, except the last film of the night, Casey Floyd's "World's Lamest Teacher."
LIFE OF A TEACHER
Floyd composes a semi autobiographical film that looks at the daily life of a high school teacher as he has to deal with delinquent students, school yard fights, depressed teenagers and active shooter drills. Each little slice-of-life vignette is woven in seamlessly showing a great level of skill. Floyd is also able to get some of the strongest performances I've ever seen in a student film.
Daniel Beltram plays the lead teacher in the film and he brings just the right amount of charisma to the role. We first see him standing outside his class, dreading to walk into the room full of hooligans. Once he does, we see his demeanor change as he turns into one of those teachers that all the students think is cool. It's such a well-written character for a 20-minute short. Another standout actor in the film is Luke Smith -- who also starred in "Rebound" -- who plays one of the degenerate students Beltram's character has a soft spot for. By the end of the film we feel the stress on the shoulders of today's educators. It's an honest film that's well crafted, and easily one of the best things I've seen come out of the grad program since ... well ... my thesis film.
All the films were technically sound, which is a good thing, meaning that UCA is pumping out competent, hard-working film crews. Despite any flaws, all five of this year's films should have a good festival run. So be on the lookout for them when festival season starts later this year.