Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Two Short Film Reviews: Drowning By Sunrise and Balloon

The following are reviews for two short films: the documentary Drowning by Sunrise and the short film Balloon. The first review is Drowning by Sunrise.

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In the eight minutes Drowning by Sunrise runs, we are presented with very serious questions that touch on the still-contentious issues of police brutality and racism.

Damain Martin was a sixteen-year-old in Sunrise, Florida who died on March 8, 2019. That everyone agrees on. It's everything else about this case that has people on opposite sides. Damain fled the police who were chasing him and three other young men who may have been in a stolen car. Damain was Tased by an officer but still got into a canal in his escape effort. His death was ruled an accidental drowning.

The issues come as to whether the Tasing caused his death, whether aid was deliberately held back, and how Damain, an excellent swimmer, could have drowned. Did the Taser somehow cause his death? Was he Tased before or after he hit the water? What ultimately caused Damain Martin's death.

There are many questions still to be cleared up, and Drowning by Sunrise asks them. Directors Jess Swanson and Jason Fitzroy Jeffers do an effective job of raising them via the interviews of those personally impacted by Damain's story. Of particular note is his mother, Tequila Waters. It is impossible not to react to Ms. Waters' pain and anguish at Damain's funeral, her cries of "I don't want to bury my baby!" hitting the viewer especially hard.

It is clear that Drowning by Sunrise is less a pure documentary than an advocacy film; the final shot is eloquent in its silence: a group of angry black citizens staring the viewer down, silent in their rage of another young black men dead due to police interaction.

Drowning by Sunrise does a strong job touching on these issues of racial profiling and almost general indifference to African-Americans. It is something worth looking further into.


The second review is the short film Balloon.

Jonah Beres in Balloon (2019)

Balloon is something of a superhero origin story but with a twist in that rather than celebrating strength it seeks to embrace gentleness and kindness in our budding warrior. While certain elements make me wonder if Balloon is not looking at other elements that shape young men, it's quite an interesting take on an important issue.

Shy, gentle Sam Wheeler (Jonah Beres) faces a lot of bullying from Jason (Carson Severson). Even during the active shooter drill Jason can't help torment Sam, threatening to kill him and calling him "fa***t". Sam's only friend seems to be Adam (Jaylin Ogle), but even Adam is not immune from peer pressure. After a video of Jason beating Sam goes viral, Sam seems at the end of his rope. The fact that he not only refused to punch back but is mocked for it by others does not help.

What could help is the emergence of physical superpowers. Sam finds he is able to levitate and hit objects without actually touching them. The wonders of his powers almost come on display when he finds himself floating over everyone when doing a rope-pulling exercise, but the Coach's whistle distracts him to where he falls. Bullied once too often in the shower when Jason urinates on him, causing even Adam to chuckle, it looks like Sam will finally strike back.

As Jason lays terrified and the cheering students are stunned into silence when Sam breaks their phones with his the power of his mind, Sam stands over Jason, hesitant to throw a punch. Sam leaves to a secluded area, where he floats over an unaware world.

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One thing that Balloon did not address in regards to its themes on bullying and whether violence is an answer was the total absence of parents. There's a brief scene where we see Sam's totally disengaged father, ostensibly watching television with Sam but clearly not involved with his son. Sam's mother is too busy on the telephone save for taking a picture of Sam's black eye and sending it to the person on the other end.

I'm going to get a bit preachy here, but I am firm believer that parents, especially fathers, are as much responsible for the decline and decay of the youth as any other factor if not more so. Absent fathers be it absent physically or emotionally leave young men adrift. They then turn to others to mold them into the idea of what 'a man' should be. Sometimes it can be athletes or entertainers, and sometimes it can be fictional characters who answer everything with violence. Granted there are other factors in the rise of extreme bullying and not all men without fathers grow to be violent themselves, but my belief is that there would be fewer acts of 'toxic masculinity' if men saw themselves as caretakers versus mere sperm donors.

Balloon has excellent performances from our young leads. Beres is extremely skilled in how he shows Sam's gentleness when he tenderly handles a caterpillar. He also demonstrates great acting when he marvels at his growing powers or in his struggle to use violence against Jason. Severson's bullying Jason elicits great anger, and given his fixation with Sam's potential sexual orientation one wonders if Jason, not Sam, is gay and he is overcompensating as a coping mechanism. Ogle's Adam also shines as the fair-weather friend who does seem to care but is also weak against joining the crowd.

As a side note, much as I've been told Balloon is an LGBT film I didn't see anything that said as much apart from Jason's homophobia, which may be a case of he doth protest too much.

Masterfully directed by co-writer Jeremy Merrifield (written with Dave Testa), Balloon is a story of those who have the ability to hit back but who opt to restrain themselves. That takes greater strength and courage. Would that we learn the difference between standing up for ourselves and beating ourselves and others down.


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