Short films can be a happy medium for those of us who don't like to be tethered down to a lengthy film. On the other hand, watching one or even a few shorts without any direction or larger focus can be dissatisfying. Luckily, the folks over at USA Network seemed to recognize the need for a theme when they partnered up with RSA Films and Ridley and Tony Scott to create "Character Project," a series of seven unrelated short films united by a common goal: to celebrate America's characters.
"Character Project" was screened Wednesday afternoon in West Hollywood for the LA Short Film Festival. The collection tells a menagerie of stories—from The Dude, a short that follows the inspiration behind the central character of the Big Lebowski to The Fickle, which chronicles one woman’s twelve failed relationships.
In the opening scenes of Duck, directed by Jakob Daschek, a dictionary definition of haphephobia, the fear of being touched, flashes on the screen. It is a condition that affects Manuel, the film’s young lead, and it is problematic for him at school, at home, and pretty much every other place where human contact is expected. A boxing coach Manuel’s mother takes him to as a last resort for help, however, heralds haphephobia as a blessing. In the ring, Manuel’s fear of being touched works to his advantage; he deftly avoids every stroke, hence the title. Even with the constraints of time, Duck is moving and effective.
Wyckoff Place, a documentary about a group of multicultural friends in a Brooklyn apartment building, was my personal favorite. Judging from the amount of audience interest it garnered during the post-screening producers Q&A and the fact that it won the Best Documentary prize a few days later, I wasn't alone. The short features an ensemble cast of children who churn out memorable one-liners as often as they pelt each other with pinecones and snowballs. The smallest of the group, Clark, a Macaulay Culkin look-alike who bemoans his cold sores and gets hilariously agitated when teased about potential love interests, has enough comedic appeal to star in his own spin-off documentary.
According to the producers, after director Lauri Faggioni discovered Wyckoff Place ("a happy accident"), their intention was to explore cultural divides, since several of the children who live there have been uprooted from places like Yemen and Puerto Rico. Perhaps in a testament to their innocence though, the children seemed oblivious to the implications of such divisions. They split up into factions, yes, but on the basis of gender rather than ethnicity (a cardboard poster in the hall of the apartment reads, "GIRLS RULE! BOYS DRULE!")
Since it is a documentary, the endearing foibles of the characters are preserved rather than flattened out by a script. And since it is a documentary about children who aren't capable of any kind of elaborate subterfuge, every interaction feels unfeigned and pure. Most importantly, Wyckoff Place adhered poignantly to the series' intention, "To show the courage, connection, humor, and hope that give shape to the American character."
You can watch all of the "Character Project" short films online here.