There has been a lot of people calling for more strong female characters on screen of late, but I’m with Maggie Gyllenhaal. I don’t want more “strong” female characters, I want more real women on my screens.
So, yes, I want strong female characters, but I also want ones that are weak, traumatized, desperate, intelligent, footloose and fancy-free. This is why the Toronto Youth Shorts Festival’s program “Who We Are” is so effective. As with any shorts program, the quality of the individual films varies from decent to spectacular (fortunately there are no stinkers in this bunch), but more importantly they provide a range of styles as varied as the women they portray.
- A New Reflection features Kate Atkinson who was born with multiple facial differences. The film itself is bright and colourful, and while sweet, the message of everyone is beautiful is a little too heavy handed and comes across as quite sappy. A New Reflection is at its best when it’s just following Kate being Kate with her friends, family, teachers, etc. Teenagers are endlessly fascinating. B
- Anna’s Pet Project is the story of a girl who befriends a T-rex to help her fight off her bullies. The animation is primitive and jumpy, the characters constantly shifting even when standing still. While it is definitely not to my taste, there is no denying that the animation adds a disturbing, creepy quality that is a perfect fit for the story. I don’t quite understand the purpose of the human sounding cat, however, especially when all the other animals emit normal human sounds. There are other details as well that don’t quite seem to mesh with the whole. B-
- Asteroid is definitely one of my favourite shorts in the program. It’s the story of a little girl whose dying grandfather tells her stories of space and captaining her own spaceship to help her understand his wish to move on. It’s sweet and touching, capturing the mind of a child perfectly. Huge credit also goes to the filmmakers for giving us a little girl who sleeps in a room full of stars, on a pillow showing the Earth from space. Her dreams are full of aliens and interplanetary travel to save doomed worlds, which makes a beautiful connection to her grandfather’s struggle to breathe and his desire for what is beyond, unexplored and unknown. A
- Being Tessa gives us a young woman who has every reason to believe the world is out to get her, but instead oozes optimism and positivity. If you want the textbook definition of a strong woman, Tessa Smith is it. At two months old, after being diagnosed with a retinoblastoma, her right eye was removed. Then, in her teens, she was diagnosed with bone cancer, resulting in the amputation of her knee. The doc manages to be inspiring without descending into typical cliches. The most poignant moment is when her mother talks about all the people who claim they couldn’t have made it through the same situation. She always tells them, “You would because you have to.” There are few docs like this that take that stance. Yes, Tessa and her parents are amazingly resilient and optimistic, but they’re not so different from everyone else. It’s a matter of survival. B+
- Bosniak manages to cram the feeling of a feature into its short run time. Following a woman who survived the Bosnian war in her teens, the film intercuts the present day with Bosnia’s war-torn past. It paints a bleak picture, but is beautifully acted and subtly directed by Kejd Kuqo, who manages to capture even the smallest moments with resounding resonance. It works as a short, but could definitely be developed into a feature and is definitely something that warrants further exploration. A+
- In the Weeds explores the realities of being a woman today, covering everything from expectations of strangers to always be happy, the job requirement to “be pretty,” and to the belief that the absence of “No” equals consent. It is a film that hits very close to home for it unflinching looks at the bullshit women put up with on a daily basis by just existing. It packs a punch and stays with you long after the credits roll. A
- Jesse follows a young woman recently left as the sole carer for her autistic brother. Disorders are always a difficult subject to tackle on screen, but director Adam Goldhammer handles Jesse and his relationship with his sister Kelly with a great deal of compassion, while never shying away from the difficulties that Jesse’s diagnosis causes for Kelly when she’s all he has. A
- Short and sweet, Liberation is just that. An experimental film of a girl dancing in the snow, Liberation captures the feeling of freedom in its brief moments. B+
- The overall program of Who We Are does not leave much room for humour, which is its biggest weakness, but fortunately Mia’s Milky Misadventure and Phoebe’s Declassified Guide to Unwanted Pickups prove that life is not all doom and gloom in a woman’s world. Mia’s Milky Adventures is a quirky clay-mated/found objects animation about Mia’s quest to find the world’s greatest chocolate milk after spilling the milk of a friend. Whimsical and bizarre, Mia can’t help but make you smile. A
- The title of Phoebe’s Declassified Guide to Unwanted Pickups is pretty self explanatory, providing examples of how to get rid of unwanted suitors. Talking directly to the camera, Phoebe takes us through the steps all bright and bubbly. It’s a bit of fluff that tackles a serious issue, but it balances out the entire program nicely. B
- Pretty Dangerous is the only real misfire in the program. It follows Canadian professional wrestler Seleziya “Sparx” Esho as she talks about the toll her love of her profession has taken on her physically and mentally. Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between Esho’s story and the filmmakers that makes it hard to get invested. C
- Tanabata is the shortest film of the program. It is also, by far, the best. A retelling of a Japanese legend about two star crossed lovers, Tanabata is beautifully animated, capturing the joy and the sorrow of a love that can never be. It’s worth sitting though the other twelve just for this one. A+
- Funky and upbeat, This is My Life rounds out the Who We Are program. In the experimental vein, the editing is superb, fitting seamlessly with the musical score, which is also on point. The voice-over lets the work down a bit as it sharply contrasts the experimental vibe of the rest of the film with its cliched wording and formulaic approach. B
Overall Program Grade: B+
The Toronto Youth Shorts Festival takes place this Saturday, August 8 from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Innis College Cinema in Toronto. For more information, click here.