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‘The Shawl’: Whimsical Animation Honors Queer Fat Love (and Stevie Nicks)

Sundance: How first-time filmmaker Sara Kiener brought larger-than-life boyfriends Dusty Childers and Shane O'Neill to the screen.

The Shawl gay film

“The Shawl”

Courtesy of Sundance

Anyone familiar with Dusty Childers and Shane O’Neill, two dynamic New York performers known for their sharp wits and bold fashion, won’t be surprised to hear that their animated counterparts are just as adorable and magnetic as their real larger-than-life personas. Hilariously upbeat and colorfully drawn, “The Shawl” follows an illustrated Dusty and Shane as they take turns (or more often, don’t) narrating a transporting experience at a fateful Stevie Nicks concert. Enlivening every frame with their entertaining storytelling and jaunty hand-drawn visages, these characters have no trouble filling a six-minute film. “The Shawl,” which recently premiered at Sundance, will definitely leave you wanting more.

For director Sara Kiener, who dreamt up the project with concept illustrator Brianne Farley, Shane and Dusty were dream muses. “I’m a born collaborator and a born connector, so when it came to directing, my role was really to create parameters and create a sandbox, and then invite people to come and play,” Kiener told IndieWire in a phone interview. “That started form the beginning, when I told Shane and Dusty — ‘Just come shoot the shit, just come talk and we’ll find it.'”

What she got were three hours of the couple’s most outrageous stories, from which she and Farley had to pick the most visually dynamic. “There was one other story we were gonna do, about the first time Shane and Dusty met, but it was too X-rated,” she said. “So we decided to do the Stevie Nicks one instead. We were laughing the whole way through the story.”

After whittling it down to the bear (sic) essentials, the biggest challenge on the editing side was managing how often the duo interrupt each other. “It’s so hysterical, but things get lost. That was the hardest thing to stitch together, to let them interrupt each other without losing the story,” Kiener said.

A still from <i>The Shall</i> by Sara Kiener, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“They did a really good job chopping it up and it sounds so cohesive and with it,” Childers said, adding that he was pleased the animation team didn’t slim their figures down. “If anything, the way it plays on the big screen, we really looked juicy, so it’s exciting to be big on the big screen and not be manipulated.”

It was a group effort to illustrate the couple for the big screen: Farley did the storyboards and concept art, while Maya Edelman oversaw animation.

“[Farley] is an illustrator of children’s books, so she brought so much light and playfulness. But when it came time to animate…in addition to the playfulness and the lightness, there’s also an edginess,” said Kiener. “We gave [Edelman] the storyboard, but we also gave her permission and a really long leash to find her voice. She had never met Dusty and Shane before, and she just completely brought them to life and nailed it.”

In addition to being a fabulously funny portrait of a loving queer couple (one with an enviably deep reservoir of Stevie Nicks knowledge, no less), “The Shawl” is also remarkable for celebrating big love between two big people.

“This is a movie about two fat people who are in love,” said O’Neill. “It captured the way I feel when I’m with Dusty. Being fat is a large part of who we are, and there is a lot of trauma that comes with that. But the best parts of our relationship are that we found each other and love each other as fat people, and not in spite of being fat.”

Though the culture at large is gradually shifting (Dusty singled out “This Is Us” star Chrissy Metz as the only person on TV who looks like him), both asserted that we have a long way to go.

“I just think about fat glamour in Hollywood, and it’s so very very rare,” Childers said. When O’Neill pointed out that Versace recently dressed Lizzo for the Grammys, Childers lamented that it took so long to happen. “That’s true,” O’Neill conceded. “Basically I’m mostly angry that Versace hasn’t made anything for us.”

The Shawl

Dusty Childers, Sara Kiener, and Shane O’Neill

Courtesy of Sundance

For its Sundance debut, “The Shawl” screened before “Mucho Mucho Amor,” a new documentary about the late queer astrologer Walter Mercado. Sadly, the tradition of shorts playing before features has mostly been relegated to film festivals. Many shorts struggle to find distribution, or even to drum up much support for an online release. Still, with all the content being consumed online, you’d think short films would be able to reach a wider audience.

“I work in distribution at my day job and there’s a bit of a lack of respect or care for the craft when it comes to shorts,” Kiener said. “Then again, my wife [Lauren Wolkstein]’s short films played at Sundance and SXSW and it completely launched her career. So it’s a way in for sure, but I don’t think these films get seen as widely as they should be. It’s a shame, and I think it’s a huge missed opportunity. I’m curious to see what Quiby and others do with short pieces, because obviously there’s untapped potential.”

“The Shawl” is short, entertaining, hilarious, and visually ripe. There’s no reason it shouldn’t have a long and healthy life online. With its powerful message of body confidence and queer love, this is a little film that could have a big impact.

“This film could be found by gay kids or kids who don’t know if they’re gay,” Chuldersy said. “Had I seen a fat person illustrated in such a beautiful light, the way that we are, as a kid, I probably would have slept better.”

“The Shawl” premiered in the 2020 Sundance Film Festival’s Shorts Program. It is currently seeking distribution.

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