Making films is really really hard. Making films with borrowed equipment and a budget of $0 is even harder. And making films with borrowed equipment and a budget of $0 while still learning the ins and outs of filmmaking is probably the hardest. Having made films myself for four years in high school, I can attest to this. There are so many ways a film shoot can go wrong, and a lot of a film’s success isn’t about how skilled a filmmaker you are, but rather how well you can solve problems. That’s why I have so much respect for these Texas high school students, not only for making movies, but for making good movies. So anything critical said about these films comes with a heaping helping of respect for the filmmakers behind them. God knows I have made so, so, so much worse.
The first short I watched was Miu Nakata’s Wish Upon a Snowman. It’s a stop-motion piece about a girl eagerly awaiting Christmas, only for spooky happenings to occur. The animation is very commendable, but more than that, I was quite impressed with the set design. I’ve seen a lot of amateur stop-motion where the background is nothing more than a poorly-printed photo of a city street or someone’s mom doing the dishes, but here there are well-constructed and convincing sets, giving the production a sense of professionalism. However, the short lost me towards the middle, when everything became “creepy.” The issue is that I found the original doll way creepier than the generic skeleton. Additionally, it’s a nice touch that the whole short revolves around a literal “nightmare before Christmas” complete with skeleton dog, like the Henry Selick film, and the short wears this influence on its sleeve in a very charming way.
At this point I have to point out the really weird quirk of the website where it randomizes the list of films every time you click on it. It makes it hard to keep track of the films you’ve watched. I imagine it must have been more work for the web designer to make it random instead of a fixed order, so that also confused me.
On the topic of impressive animation, I was most floored by Zeke French’s Orchard. It’s a simple story about an apple’s journey as it searches for its home. The CGI really steals the show. At times it can look utterly photorealistic, and when it started, I legitimately didn’t realize it was animation. One of the highest compliments a student film can receive is that it doesn’t feel like a student film, and that’s absolutely the case here.
However, I can’t say the same about one of the other films I watched, William Tran’s Sleep Paralysis. It’s about a stressed student dealing with sleep paralysis after a tiring day. To the film’s credit, the first half is really good. The acting and fight choreography were great, and it was exciting to see what the rest of the film had to offer. Then the actual sleep paralysis part happened and I fell asleep. Sleep paralysis is a very interesting concept, but what Tran presents feels like the bare minimum in terms of creative effort. The sleep paralysis demon is just a faceless guy in a hoodie, and he simply stands there without doing anything. I understand the limitations of having $0 as a budget, but it feels like there wasn’t an attempt to make him scarier than the initial concept. And that goes for the whole piece. It just presents sleep paralysis as a thing that exists without building off it or using it in an interesting way. And without any real conclusion to the story established in the beginning of the piece, the setup feels like an excuse to portray sleep paralysis instead of telling a story.
My least favorite film of the bunch has to be Wilson Jones’s Alex. It revolves around a teenager struggling with their gender identity, and how their father and peers will view them. Again, there are admirable qualities in this film. I generally liked the acting, especially that of the father, played by Jason Lee Boyson, and the film’s message is very important and noble. However, it falls a little flat in the execution. For starters, on a purely technical level, the short looks very dry. The color palette feels washed out and the shot variety is very low. Additionally, the scenarios in the film feel so unrealistic that they’re nearly inapplicable to real life. For instance, one of the pivotal scenes, where Alex puts their hand on a bully’s shoulder, makes no sense at all. Why would Alex greet a stranger like they’re friends? And if Alex knew the guy was a bully, why would they talk to him? These illogical scenarios pretty much comprise the film, and seriously damage the message Jones was trying to convey.
On a more positive note, my favorite film has to be Matthew Gabaldon and Jack McIntyre’s Joy Ride. It’s a story about a teen who steals keycards from his fellow classmates as a way to entertain himself, until finding more joy in spending his time interacting with someone. At first I didn’t have high hopes for this film, as it starts off with the beaten-to-death visual of someone waking up to an alarm clock. But as the narration started and the slick editing and visual style began to take hold, I started to love this piece. Yes, the story stays consistently cliché with its typical “loner boy meets loner girl and they learn to not hate everything” story, but the slight variations here and there are all in service of enhancing the visual experience, and I’m all for it. For instance, making the pair steal keycards is a very visually interesting way to show how they take pleasure in the inconveniencing of others, and reminds me of the sleight of hand seen in something like the movie Now You See Me. The dialogue and acting is also really great, and the bully character was a standout. The way he’s written and acted is a lot more realistic than such a minor, usually one-note character needs to be, and I love it.
For me, these shorts answer the question: What does an animation of a fish being gutted (Katherine Li and Christine Yan’s Fish Fish Bish), a story about performing a sandwich transplant (Kati Gibson’s Chill), and an experimental music video about gender (Ellie Bodeman’s Lucky Girl) have in common with each other? Easy. Heart. Sometimes literally, but in a figurative sense, the hearts of all 17 filmmakers who made these 15 shorts. Making films is hard. Making films with borrowed… You get it. And to all the filmmakers who stuck it out and put their hearts into their work here, I can’t wait to see what you put your hearts into next.
The SXSW 2020 Official Short Film Selections, including the Texas High School shorts, are presented online by Mailchimp and Oscilloscope Laboratories. For event information see here.