Concluding last weekend’s Yale Student Film Festival, five senior-thesis films — the work of graduating seniors in the film & media studies major — screened at the Whitney Humanities Center. Diverse in production style, theme and concept, each film left a lasting impression despite their approximately half-hour lengths. Nick Henriquez ’16 provided a visually dim recollection of a hazy evening in the city with “All Night Blue,” while Travis Gonzalez’s ’16 “Over Dinner” and Henry Wolf’s ’16 “The Perfect Fourth” each interpreted family dramas in vastly different ways. Eric Nelson ’16 imbued copious humor into an iconic portrait of the risky, toxic culture on Wall Street in “Lavender.” Lastly, and perhaps most memorably, Michelle Mboya ’16 transported viewers to Kenya with “The Camel’s Back,” a heartfelt quest for freedom and happiness shot against a backdrop of sweeping scenic beauty.
All Night Blue
The afternoon’s first film depicted the melancholy brought on by the darkness of evening. Though musical transitions felt a little melodramatic, the thematic threads holding the film’s short scenes together left a lasting impact. A jaded radio DJ who plays late-night blues meets a beautiful woman with a bruised face, supposedly from a car crash. Unsure of whether she has suffered a concussion, and therefore wanting to prevent her falling asleep, the DJ accompanies her on a series of coffee-fueled, late-night adventures. Of course, a trip to the emergency room at Yale-New Haven wouldn’t be half as exciting as an overnight exploration that falls apart just as it starts to get going. A scene filmed in “TDHeav” is momentarily distracting as the audience draws parallels between the fantasy world of the film and the reality of their campus surroundings. Much of the storyline evolved through the subtext of what was not said. The film explored the notion of missed connections on multiple occasions, creating a mood of irretrievable loss from being just a few seconds too late.
Gonzalez’s piece provided a touching insight into the tensions that underlie a family dinner uniting three generations. With an aesthetically pleasing retro vibe consistent across costume and set design, it is not hard to imagine the stills composing this short film as well-composed photographs. Technological paradoxes that both alienate and bridge the different generations are embodied in the presence of an iPhone and a plastic handheld digital poker game. Both petty and serious, this film is a mature perspective on family life glossed over by juvenile distractions and material gifts. Serious conversations unfold at kitchen tables. A daughter disciplines her mother about putting too much whipped cream on her son’s slice of pie. Although literally mundane, a second thought reveals the complexity of intergenerational family relationships as performed in this film by three accomplished actors. An argument that quickly becomes a shouting match seems to escalate out of nowhere, and the film then descends into an unhappy tableaux, landing the audience back in reality with a thud. Viewers arrive at the sobering realization that happiness is often fleeting and artificial.
A hilarious snapshot of the substance-filled lives of young businessmen, “Lavender” was reminiscent of the themes in “Wolf of Wall Street” and left the audience in raucous laughter. Two men experiment with “sexual LSD,” which supposedly guarantees the world’s best orgasm. The main character’s drug trip is brought to life through psychedelic videography punctuated by cutting-edge snap transitions — and the bros’ trip leads them into unexpected territory. The belly laughs were prompted by both the sparse, punch line-filled dialogue as well as classic “bro comedy” in the style of “Animal House” or “The Hangover.” Filled with crude teen pop culture references and teenage-boy humor, “Lavender” was a risky foray into a difficult style of humor that could not have turned out better.
The Perfect Fourth
The awkward, idle drifting while your friend and his/her family fight in front of you is pretty universally relatable. What isn’t, though, is being a complete stranger in a house you’ve never set foot in while a family is both grieving and discussing the practicalities of their newly deceased son’s belongings. In “The Perfect Fourth,” Wolf harnesses his characters’ and the audience’s discomfort and turns it into equally uncomfortable “I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-at-this” laughter. When shopping on Craigslist goes utterly pear-shaped and a boy shows up at the house of a family who has just lost their son to buy his guitar, he gets roped into a series of intense family conversations that prompt laughter and tears in equal measure. The script is free from thigh-slapping jokes; it is the accuracy of painfully awkward situations that could easily unfold in any of our lives that makes for authentic laughs.
The Camel’s Back
Young Suzy clutches a crumpled page torn from a magazine, depicting an azure ocean and a sandy white beach: Diani. She has a day to live, according to the fortune teller, and is determined to find her paradise with her loyal little brother Mark by her side. The final film, “The Camel’s Back,” was a tranquil and nostalgic portrait of childhood, illness, family and the search for physical and spiritual bliss. Laced with feminist statements and the harsh reality of growing up, the intersection of a young teenage girl’s depleting innocence and older men’s predatory confrontation is always a hard pill to swallow, especially when told through the naïve and tender voice of a young girl. Suzy’s independent spirit is inspiring, and her fearlessness is seemingly ignited by the social forces that oppress her.
Most impressive was the film’s cultural authenticity, which extended to the characters’ language — Kiswahili was spoken throughout the film and furnished with English subtitles. Mboya included adequate footage to set the scene in which the narrative unfolds, but did not use the picturesque Kenyan plains as a filmmaking crutch. She took great care to acknowledge the inherent relationship between her characters and their environment, but by no means was the film merely a montage of scenery.
The script was a work of art itself, and the moving final scene left viewers in the hope that in another world the siblings found their paradise, resplendent in Mboya’s dreamy cinematography.