“Festival shorts could be anything,” a friend warned me, but therein also lies the charm. Bittersweet, sensitive and surprisingly funny, the Sundance Shorts touring program, which came to the Michigan Theater last week, spans genres for a gymnastic study of just how agile film as a medium can be.
Starting off is a naturalistic film from the US Fiction category. “SMILF” tacks “single” on the MILF (“Mother I’d Like to Fuck”) acronym and reveals the unsexy reality of motherhood in a hilariously awkward casual sex encounter. Uncomfortable physical insecurities and a mid-coitus conversation about the toddler sleeping on the bed beside them illustrate the balance between a single mother’s old freedom and shifting post-pregnancy priorities.
Competing in the Visual Poetry category, glacially beautiful “Object” is grounded in pursuit, a wintery underwater search from three perspectives. It switches between clean, geometric shots tracking workers methodologically cutting ice and checking machinery, claustrophobic close-ups of the diver’s face as he swims through murky water and the still serenity of unknowing pedestrians strolling far beyond on shore. Creative framing and a deft use of both sound and silence make it an immersive technical feat.
Next is the silly, animated chaos of the French film “Storm Hits Jacket,” where two scientists ward off a witch-induced cow storm (yes: cow storm), a doom-be-upon-all evil villain set on stealing their invention and a side of spy-on-spy romance thrown into the mix. Scratchy, cartoon-esque animation ushers in delightful and progressively weirder oddities with every turn of scene.
In one of the program’s standouts, “Oh Lucy!,” a middle-aged woman in Japan grapples with the loneliness and self-doubt of aging. She escapes colorless cubicle drudgery to conversational English classes where she adopts a Western name and the mask of a youthful, worldly persona to match. Actress Kaori Momoi (“Memoirs of a Geisha”) bares her character’s every vulnerability, and hearts pang upon witnessing her jealousy for a life and personality she does not have. In just 22 minutes, “Oh Lucy!” unearths a level of character development that many feature-length films dream of creating.
Casting audition tapes act as the narrative framework for the next short, “The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul.” The camera stays locked as a stream of dolled-up preteens in pink velvet pose prettily against a generic studio background, with tears, troubles and hopes of their nation’s post-war climate flickering poignantly beneath their pageant-level poise.
The program closes with the Grand Jury Prize for Short Film winner “World of Tomorrow,” a science fiction cartoon of a toddler’s now adult, third-generation clone, Emily 3G, traveling back in time to show original Emily Prime the future. Both stick figures, Emily 3G walks her original counterpart through the spatially flat, simple vector-designed internet void that is the new world. She explains the detachment that comes from a hyper-digitized extended life, where to experience something is rarely more than reliving previously archived memories. Her robotic monotone narrating the story reveals a startling depth of emotion, a bittersweet and wryly humorous juxtaposition against Emily Prime’s vibrant naiveté. (This short is also available on Netflix for those who missed the Sundance screening.)
For viewers who don’t have much experience watching short films, this is an excellent introduction. It’s astounding how such complex stories can be compressed into mere minutes, and these award-winning shorts use that space to experiment with technical effects or niche plotlines. But for all its serious artistry, the collective program still manages to stay accessible to emotions everyone experiences. You laugh. You might cry. You definitely live.