Pictured: Emily Maya Mills tries to hold it together in Soundman.
There are a whopping 98 short films available as part of the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. When faced with the daunting task of picking where to start, comedy seemed like a natural enough place—after all, as countless sketch comedy shows have proven, comedy is a genre that thrives in short form. Of the films reviewed, some of the shorts aim directly for that sketch comedy style, while others play more like narrative films in miniature. I’m happy to say several of them are quite good.
The pick of the crop is Soundman from writer Elizabeth Musgrave and St. Louis-born director (and Funny Or Die contributor) Debi Bradshaw. It starts with such a simple premise: an ornithologist attempts to present her findings on a rare bird that was only rumored to exist to a room full of birdwatchers, but she gets thrown off her game by microphone problems and her entire presentation quickly degenerates into disaster. As you might expect, the tone starts as cringe comedy, piling on the preposterousness until through the laughter you realize it’s not just funny, it’s also pretty poignant. Emily Maya Mills puts her all into our timid professor Dr. Matilda Hewitt, capturing a woman who is falling apart before our eyes—this script asks a lot of her and she nails every bit of it. Additional kudos and chuckles to Neil Flynn (you know him as the Janitor on Scrubs, or patriarch Mike Heck on The Middle), who plays the dean of Matilda’s university and is the king of incredulous reaction shots.
On the sketch comedy side of things, the Poison Ivy League Sketch Show (a St. Louis-based sketch comedy group, and I’m guessing a brand new one from their small-so-far web presence) offers up a pair of shorts. The more substantial one is While You Were at the Office, a seven-minute mockumentary (directed by Alex Fuegner) interviewing three nannies about their day. Chipper Amy (Chrissie Watkins) watches a baby, though not all that closely; Valerie (the short’s writer, Kaitlin Gant) plays nice with Lizzy (Gwendoline Ray), an innocent-seeming girl who is clearly a future serial killer; and exasperated Jennifer (Erin Goodenough) is ignored by TJ (Alister Long), a screen-obsessed tween boy. Of the three, the Valerie-Lizzy portions are the best part, pairing Ray’s perfectly deadpan delivery of her morbid lines with Gant’s slightly worried side-eye to great effect. Gant also appears in the short Bad Boy (which she wrote and directed), a slighter sketch about a girl who says she only likes “bad boys,” but her definition of “bad” is…well, you just have to see it, primarily so you can see Tyler J. Neumann embody her dream “bad boy” with pure grunge mimbo energy.
Lizzy in While You Were at the Office may have been scary, but she’s got nothing on Nosh, a horror-comedy short directed by Gary Lobstein about a sleazy man who shows up at a woman’s house for a hook-up and is greeted with a table full of dessert and a whole lot more than he bargained for. Sam Raimi gets a mention in the credits and that’s a pretty good point of reference, as is the goofy fake trailers that accompanied Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse: there’s a ‘70s throwback quality to the production values and the slightly affected performances of Karen Druley and Todd Schowalter as the couple, and a twist that you’ll find either funny or gross or (let’s be honest) a little of both. The soundtrack by one Loud C. Smith also contributes mightily to the eerie vibes.
Written and directed by Lupe Medina (born in Mexico, she now calls the St. Louis region home), Contingency Date puts an interesting twist on These Unprecedented Times with a couple (Camryn Ruhl, Jon Straub) who have been dating exclusively via Zoom. They’ve also both been totally lying to each other about their life situations so when they finally agree to meet in person, you can imagine how well it goes. Straub in particular is fun to watch: the first time you see him, you can sense something is off about him, and when that off-ness comes to the forefront, it pays off well. Even better: “Jerk!”, a tune by Stephie Coplan and the Pedestrians that give the closing credits a Veruca Salt-y kick.
On the weirder front, Beartrap (directed by Ryan M. Kneezle) features a vagrant (Alec Noakes) who gets caught in a bear trap in the woods and remains trapped while a girl in a bear suit (Jacklyn Parker) nuzzles on him, keeps him company, but won’t set him free. This one’s definitely on the experimental side: it’s wordless, powered by the song “Hand Grenade” by Amanda Jerry that makes the whole thing feel like a music video (albeit one where you can readily read the actors’ lips to follow the plot). The way the film is shot makes the woods look quite beautiful, but the narrative just doesn’t quite come together in a satisfying way.
Conspiracy-182 is on the wackier side, featuring a crazed Jeff (Austin Zwibelman) who tries to explain to his incredulous friend Tony (writer/director Tanner Richard Craft) a vast governmental conspiracy centered around the band blink-182. Unfortunately, the joke doesn’t quite land: the conspiracy isn’t preposterously overcomplicated enough to be funny, nor are the references to blink-182 clever enough to warrant the band’s inclusion as a punchline.
Also screening as part of the Comedy Shorts program but not reviewed: Ghostbusters: South-Side (A Fan Film) (directed by Patrick Lawrence), jk (directed by Howie E. Kremer), The Rules of Golf (directed by Aliki Raisis), and Shut Up and Salute (directed by Joseph Tronicek and Stephen V. Tronicek). More details on the comedy shorts can be found here.
The 21st annual Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase runs until July 25th. The comedy shorts program is available to stream for $14, or $12 for Cinema St. Louis members. The full list of feature films, shorts, and master classes are available virtually; for more info or to purchase tickets, visit www.cinemastlouis.org/st-louis-filmmakers-showcase. | Jason Green