We’re All Pretty Broken/a love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle | SLIFF 2022

One of the fan favorite scenes in John Hughes’ quintessential high school comedy The Breakfast Club is when the kids all get stoned in the library and have an impromptu dance party. Taking that idea and stretching it out to a full 45 minutes probably sounds like way too much of a good thing, but with its compelling choreography and energetic performances, We’re All Pretty Broken proves it can work.

Mr. Simms (Arik Sexton) is a whole lot more earnest and well-meaning than Vice Principal Vernon ever was. We see him getting ready for school and giving himself a pep talk about how his job is to enrich the lives of his student charges. Arriving early for Saturday detention, he sits at his desk and imagines himself giving them pep talks, which gradually morphs into a dance routine set to “Essential Workers Anthem” by Marc Rebillet, a house groove akin to Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You.” Then we meet our Breakfast Club trio: Jordan (Prince Lyons), a jock troublemaker; Roxie (Joselynn Baker), who got herself into detention because she has a crush on Mr. Simms; and Zane (David X), a purple-haired, purple-nailed, blue-eyeshadowed, skirt-wearing misfit who got detention for his constant romantic liaisons with a human-sized ragdoll named Gus. (I don’t get it either.) As they dance their way through their Saturday around the halls of SLU High, the film tackles the education system, as Mr. Simms and the kids tear into how standardized testing has ruined education and how the education system lets down Black children in particular.

Lyons—whom, in addition to playing Jordan, also wrote, directed, and choreographed the film—does impressive work here, using interpretive dance as a means for both character establishment and plot formation. He and his fellow dancers’ moves are liquid smooth, but they also imbue a lot of personality and even humor into their performances. It’s all captured wonderfully by Brian Verbarg (who produced, filmed, and edited the short), who has a keen eye on when to keep the shot static and when to have his camera move along with the action. A 45-minute music video would be nothing without great music of course, and Lyons made excellent choices throughout, including the aforementioned Rebillet tune that gets the proceedings off to a funky start, a pair of reggae-inflected jams by St. Louis rapper Mvstermind (who cameos as the school janitor), and “You’ve Done Enough” by Ritchie Everett, a killer track that plays over the credits to wrap the film up with a little ‘70s Curtis Mayfield kick. We’re All Pretty Broken is a little purposefully weird at times, but it lands all its political points and the tunes and dance moves make that medicine go down easy.

An experimental short that qualified for SLIFF after screening at this summer’s St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, a love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle is an hour-long piece that blends spoken word performance, testimonials, and interpretive dance in an exploration of racism, diversity initiatives, white fragility, anti-blackness, and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. Spoken word and interpretive dance are certainly not everyone’s bag and I’ll be the first to admit that I personally have a low tolerance for interpretive dance, but even I was impressed with the way writer, director, and choreographer Hettie Barnhill (a Central VPA grad who now works on Broadway) used her camera to move with and around her performers to really capture the grace and fluidity of their movements. There is one sequence in particular that is soundtracked by Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention that I found particularly affecting. The film is at its most powerful when it’s at its most personal, as in the early going when the dancers discuss their own experiences dealing with police. That personal touch doesn’t always carry over to the scripted material, which is at times ham-fisted, but any time it starts to wobble, Barnhill snatches you back with another personal moment or perspective. This is a thought-provoking work definitely worth seeking out. | Jason Green

We’re All Pretty Broken and a love letter to Bryan, Lesley, and Michelle will screen together at Brown Hall on the campus of Washington University (near the corner of Forsyth Blvd. and Hoyt Dr., University City) on Saturday, November 12th at 4:00pm as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival with an appearance from the two films’ respective directors, Prince Lyons and Hettie Barnhill. This event is free of charge and does not require a festival pass. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the SLIFF website.

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