Saturday, April 02, 2016

Work by Friends: Chris White's Unbecoming



(Full disclosure: Chris White, Emily Reach White, Teri Parker Lewis and other people involved with Unbecoming are friends of mine. Click here for more details on that and to read a review of one of Chris’s earlier films.)

I’m often daunted by the short film form, just as I am as a reader by short stories. The limitations of each form make the truths uncovered that much more powerful, and there is a case to be made that the work required to uncover those truths is more difficult. There is a reason we’re still reading the stories of Chekhov, Welty, and Cheever after all. Writer/director Chris White has worked in the short form before, and I even made my film debut in one effort, but the new Unbecoming finds White working with confidence on more challenging material. White bills Unbecoming, a 40-minute anthology of 5 short films, as a “Southern Gothic Comedy”, but don’t get the wrong idea. White isn’t interested in the comedy of Southern eccentricity so much as what has always interested him: the honesty, joy, pain, and pleasure of real moments between people. In the first chapter of Unbecoming a lonely, dignified older man (Michael Forest) shares a few minutes with a woman (Patti D’Arbanville) searching for her lost goat. The conversation they share offers a brief connection - and possibly a new reading of American history - but White’s script doesn’t force anything. Goats come back, and life goes on. Later, two other lost souls (Teri Parker Lewis and Jack Peyrouse) have some cross-generational conversation during a chance encounter at a fast food joint, That middle section feels the most conventional, as though the idea of the piece hadn’t fully been fleshed out, but the other chapters more than make up for it. The funniest chapter involves a bookish teen (Natalie Belz) and the self-involved coach (Aaron Belz) minding her in in-school suspension. After watching the young lady puncture Coach’s hopes with a few words I think that White may have a great high-school comedy in him.

My favorite chapter of Unbecoming is the fourth, which is also the most ambitious. It’s here that White reaches for all the power of a great short work in a story that touches on love, aging, choices, and most of all memory. (There’s also a gag about a local landmark that’s too good to spoil.) Lilly Nelson is excellent here as a woman who loves the man (Bill Mazzella) who doesn’t know how to handle her. There’s a scene of foreplay between Nelson and Mazzella that feels like something out of a French New Wave film and that serves as a testament to the creativity that come from limitations. White ends Unbecoming with a musical grace note in a scene between brother and sister (Shua Jackson and Phyllis Jackson) at their father’s funeral. That moment speaks to two of White’s larger concerns in this short collection: Time never stops, and we all just have to do the best we can.

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