By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.
“Tastes Like Medicine” (2016), the sixteen minute and thirty second debut short from writer-director Steven Alexander, is an absolute triumph. It operates spectacularly well as both a non-linear, character-driven drama and as a meditative allegory. Alexander presents a journey into the fragmented recollections of our lead, Drew (in a well-rounded, emotional powerhouse of a role from Damion Rochester), that is undeniably harrowing. It is also courageous and challenging throughout. Moreover, it is full of abstract, insightful glimpses into the sad plight of those who, like Drew himself, sense that they cannot let go, or escape from, what has been.
In fact, one of the grandest accomplishments here is how beautifully Alexander blends the situation Drew keeps returning to. This is a celebration for the expectant ex-lover of our protagonist, Allison (a wonderfully honed, slice of life enactment by Marisa Rambaran). All of these are balanced alongside the more surreal, poetic elements issued throughout. Additionally, a mid-film shouting match between Drew and Allison’s current beau evokes how well the authentic and dream-like counterparts of the endeavor are handled. The end result is a profound, technically and tearfully dazzling construction. It is one made all the more magnificent by Alexander’s stylish directorial flare.
All of this is further complimented by Alexander’s intelligent, layered, competently paced and awe-inspiringly designed screenplay. For example, an impressive initial portion demonstrates Alexander’s ability to dually transport thoughtful and entertaining exposition. This is while making a larger statement about society as a whole. The bit comes at a mere two and a half minutes in. It oversees a discussion concerning Drew, felonious background, how the term “criminal” haunts one, especially from an employer’s standpoint, and the male and female double standard. Such is the perfect manner to construct a narrative such as this. It allows us to see the vulnerability and internal wounds of the main personality through his own eyes as well as those around him. Similarly, it also enhances the incredible degree of artistry, skill and ingenuity at hand.
In the tale, Drew arrives at the aforementioned party with a call girl named Kake (in an excellent, down to earth turn by Wi-Moto Nyoka). Continuing to be overwrought with grief and jealousy at how his romance with Allison went wrong, he has a mental breakdown. This causes a situation somewhat reminiscent of what deceased director Harold Ramis laid down in Groundhog Day (1993). Such is where Drew finds himself destined to continuously relive the same incidents connected to the joyous gathering for Allison as if in an eternal loop. The main difference is that, unlike Ramis’ critically acclaimed feature, Drew may not get the chance to move on. This is even if he somehow gets everything ‘right’.
Besides what is clearly visible in the underlying nature of the account itself, Alexander brilliantly fills all that we come across with obvious representations, as well as subtle indicators, of Drew’s inability to live in the present. For instance, a stunning looking title card over a dark screen informs us early of the name of the labor. It than simply states, “Chapter I”. Yet, there is no “Chapter II” anywhere to be found. Even the moniker of the piece itself can be seen as a deserved treatment; a purgatory-like punishment for errors Drew has made. This is punctuated by a chilling, and certainly appropriate, climax. It is one where Drew finds himself doomed to repeat the events which we just encountered.
Likewise, we are also amended a striking, elegiac, lustrous and stirring opening sequence. It runs a mere seventy-seconds. Still, it provides an incredible bit of narration that functions as a stalwart thesis statement of what comes afterward. The arrangement immediately exhibits Alexander’s knack for imagery. This is as a montage of shots of Allison, all of which ingeniously capture her in a range of expressions that could possibly personify the attitudes Drew saw her in during their long extinguished rapport, are spied. During this memorably attention-garnering segment, Alexander poses a question for his audience. This is articulated in the afflicted inflection of our broken hero. Such is repeated in the finale. It sets the tone of the entire endeavor. It is the centerpiece of, not only this scene, but of the work itself. Here Alexander forces his spectators to ponder: “Have you ever stared at something so long that it changes before your very eyes”?
Further crediting the affair is Oliver Covrett and J. Anders Urmacher. The duo drapes the production in moody, alluring black and white cinematography. This veneer matches the overall atmosphere incredibly. Furthermore, Charles Allen Brownley III’s sound contribution is remarkably crisp and proficient. Joanna Rodriguez conjures tremendous make-up. Alexander’s editing is masterful. Justin Walker White as Kevin, Lauren J. Daggett as Julie and Randall Holloway as Alex are all terrific in their respective depictions.
All of these essentials come together to create a multi-genre undertaking that is endlessly believable. Such rings true even when utilizing its more fantastic third act components. That, in itself, is more than enough reason to recommend this evocative, sentimentally rousing tour de force. Alexander has given us a riveting composition. It is one that is unafraid to display the flaws of all of those unveiled within the chronicle. In so doing, it commands us to peer inside ourselves and reflect on the bleaker moments in all our lives. From herein, it pushes us to do just as Kake states to Drew near the conclusion of this magnum opus and “Let it go”! Such is only a hint of the transformative and cathartic strength of the spellbinding fiction Alexander has delivered to his spectators. “Tastes Like Medicine” is a winner on all fronts!