Kristen Stewart’s directing debut may be the biggest draw in this year’s touring package of Sundance-alum short films. But as usual with these anthologies, the real stars are sometimes filmmakers you didn’t know you came to see. A varied program ranging from naughty animation to a viral-video gem, the presentation likely contains an Oscar contender or two; supporters of shorts-in-cinemas efforts will be happy to have bought a ticket.
Stewart’s Come Swim is by a wide margin the most self-consciously arty entry here, an expressionistic collage full of drowning imagery and whispered voiceover conversations. Is it a dream? A pre-death vision? A psychotic break? What’s clear is its visual and auditory lushness and the high ambitions of its maker.
Easier to follow but similarly existential is And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye, a 19-minute Chilean story about a farmer whose entire small herd of cattle has simply dropped dead. That same day, his mother gets a visitor who seems, calmly, to mean her no good; she tries to foil him the way a character in an old folk tale might, but fails — or does she? Haunting imagery in the final scene turns the tables beautifully.
Two on the list are essentially well-produced gags: Peter Huang’s 5 Films About Technology is as enjoyable for its stylish interstitial graphics as for its comic-nightmare look at porn and the Internet of Things; Pussy, an animated short from Poland, watches as a young woman’s enjoyment of her own body takes an extremely weird, cute-scary-cute turn.
Anu Valla’s Lucia, Before and After and Marshall Tyler’s Night Shift both demonstrate a social conscience without becoming preachy. The former, whose careful observation of insignificant details makes it feel like a good short story, watches a Texan endure the 24-hour waiting period legally required before she can have an abortion. In the latter, Tunde Adebimpe is a man maintaining his dignity in what, knock wood, is the lowest point in his life. This one contains the most pleasing surprise of the entire program, but is modest enough not to make a big deal of it.
Then there’s that viral video. You may already have heard of Sweden’s Ten Meter Tower, in which Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson set up mikes and cameras to observe everyday swimmers who climb up to a high-dive platform and try to convince themselves to jump. You might have thought, “ugh, why do people keep forwarding me videos I never watch?” You’ll be happy to get a second chance on the big screen, as this surprisingly funny, winning and scary short finds an unpretentious and eloquent way to show how alike we humans are. All that, and a triumphant slo-mo backflip, accompanied by Ode to Joy.