The best short films in any given year can be elusive objects. At most film festivals, shorts — many of which announce the arrival of new filmmakers and fresh storytelling techniques — surface in crammed programs where a wide variety of compelling efforts have been stuffed together like sardines in a can. This often has a homogenizing effect, to the point where viewers lose track of the individual tidbits of quality and register only its girth, so that once it ends they're only left with a vague memory of satisfaction. As a result, many of the highlights from each year's shorts wind up discovered by means of involuntary channel-surfing.
The Maryland Film Festival, which began its 16th edition on Wednesday, has found a brilliant solution to this conundrum. The five-day Baltimore gathering cedes its opening night slot to a handful of short films curated by rising filmmakers who introduce each of the five selections concurrently over the course of the evening. It's one of the rare situations in which worthy shorts receive exposure commensurate with the spotlight given to feature-length productions. In the three years I have attended Maryland's opening night, nothing has compared to the uniform appeal of this year's bunch, a set of American productions just as strong as countless movies generating buzz this year, and some in cases more worthy of it.
Presented by filmmakers Darius Clark Monroe ("Evolution of a Criminal") and Riley Steans ("Faults"), the 71-minute program was notably contemporary, with several stories focused on modern technology's impact on perception, and others that simply capture relevant attitudes with equal parts depth and concision.
The first and most unnerving of the bunch, Pippa Bianco's "Share," will be the only American entry in the Cinefoundation short film section at this month's Cannes Film Festival. It's easy to see why: Bianco's approach to depicting teen girl Krystal (Taissa Farmiga) coming to grips with video documentation of her sexual assault is in tune with many tropes of European art cinema — its long, engrossing takes on par with the Dardenne brothers and a voyeuristic quality reminiscent of Michael Haneke.
The story's first act unfolds exclusively over text message, as Krystal discovers the offending video sent to her by apologetic friends, then follows her over the course of horrific school day, when she contends with the paranoia of facing a world potentially scrutinizing her without her knowledge. Never before have the digital ellipses of an incoming text message carried such an uneasy, suspenseful quality. "Share" portrays the distinctly modern fear of digital processes beyond our control — and yet, at the same time, with the potential to become dangerously personal.
Another impressive look at internal struggles is "Melville," the latest short from "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" producer James M. Johnston. Starring Chicago-based rapper Rodney "F.Stokes" Lucas in a tender role, the story finds Lucas playing a wayward coffee maker, who's contending with his daily fears while letting loose on them in his spectacular hip hop routine.
From a hilarious opening scene in which the character confronts a father on the street for smoking around his child — a bumbling heroic feat that wins Marcus a black eye — it's clear that Marcus' empathetic tendencies lack an appropriate outlet. He drifts through conversations with his pregnant wife and whiny mother, incapable of expressing his underlying frustrations. Johnston captures these moments with a gentle touch, aided by an expressive set of soul tunes and Lucas' telling expressions. But everything he internalizes finally comes to a head in the remarkable closing stage act, where "Melville" becomes the ultimate testament to music's cathartic power.
"Pink Grapefruit" also hints at unspoken tensions, but directs them toward more comedic possibilities. Directed by Michael Mohan (who has already made the goofy features "One Too Many Mornings" and "Save the Date"), the plot revolves around a young married couple who bring along two friends on a blind date to their Palm Springs getaway. Awkward exchanges ensue as the would-be new couple explore their chemistry, and the adorable uneasiness with which their pals force them together provides a recurring source of charm. But "Pink Grapefruit" imbues its laughs with insight as it flips the tables and forces the settled couple to question their own bond while witnessing the evolution of a new one. Mohan combines the developments of a playfully vulgar sex comedy with something far more astute — a genuine look at the countless ambiguities that define relationships and leave their future developments up in the air.
Angel Kristi Williams' "Charlotte" explores some of the unsettling high school dynamics found in "Shared," though it offers a gentler approach with its depiction of a young woman who eagerly befriends her popular classmate and finds herself drawn into stronger feelings for the new friend that she didn't expect. With a quiet, textured quality, the movie conveys a complex process of sexual awakening in 11 minutes without straining for lack of details. The movie is a lovely snapshot of developing sensibilities, both for the director and her protagonist.
Having explored such weighty topics through a heavily dramatic lens, the shorts program concluded with a welcome dose of lighthearted nonfiction. The ESPN-produced "Bad Boy of Bowling" provides a delightful peek at the true nature of bowling champion Pete Weber, whose defiant battle cry after winning the 2012 U.S. Open — "Who do you think you are? I am!" — turned him into a viral celebrity and object of ridicule for viewers far beyond the sport's fan base. Director Bryan Storkel uses his 19 minute running time to completely redefine that moment in relation to Weber's personal struggles, examining the subject's pure, unabashed superiority complex and finding a sincere purpose lurking beneath it.
Tracking Weber's life in the shadow of his father's own bowling stardom, Storkel shows how the younger Weber's initial career success mirrored the bubble of popularity surrounding professional bowling until it burst at the end of the nineties, when ABC pulled it in light of declining ratings. Weber's 2012 outburst was the result of several renewed fires — the Professional Bowling Association found new life on cable largely thanks to Weber's telegenic personality, and Weber had initially withdrawn from the league after his father's death.
Instead of vanishing into the alcoholism that riddled his early career, he made a comeback that forced the entire world to take note. Weber, whose feature-length documentary "Holy Rollers" similarly demystifies an aspect of the sports world largely considered gimmicky — a team of Christian gamblers — and finds rich personalities within it, makes the case for Weber as one of the most distinctive celebrity athletes in the 21st century.
In its succinct running time, the movie suggests that a bigger and more impactful story lies beyond the most simplistic understanding of any given character's plight. That's the fascinating concept behind all of these sophisticated shorts, and bodes well for their directors' next steps.