By Andrew Buckner
****1/2 out of *****.
“Numb” (2016), the third short film from writer-director Penelope Lawson, is an intriguing study in temperament. It is one which is much in line with Steve McQueen’s controversial, NC-17 rated tour de force, Shame (2011). The ten minute production, budgeted at $10,000, follows Astrid (in a harrowing portrayal by co-producer Rebecca Martos). She is an emotionally distant, yet unusually relatable, protagonist. Throughout the course of Lawson’s engaging assembly, this factor is backed up by the several sexual relationships she engages in. These are all with the random men she encounters. Yet, a genuine connection between any of them is obviously lacking. As a matter of fact, much of the piece seems to be a reflection on the individuals she meets. There seems to be a new entity arriving with each scene. Often these people reach out to her anyways. Yet, the title adjective of the narrative remains true for our heroine. Their calls for assistance slips away silent, unnoticed. This might even be a deliberate ignorance on Astrid’s behalf.
Such heightens the shroud of mystery hovering over her personality. We find ourselves caught up in the proceedings of Lawson’s well-paced, intelligently penned affair. Such transpires to the point that we always ponder the incredible insights Astrid might unveil. This is if she were to actually confront her feelings instead of purposefully avoiding them. This is to both her spectators and about herself. Lawson’s exercise meditates on this fine line. It is one most folks find themselves forced to walk. Such accrues to spectacular effect. It is this impetus, along with the catastrophic episode which made Astrid so hollow within (which is wisely kept a mystery until the seven and a half minute mark), that helps make Lawson’s work so fascinating.
When we first meet Astrid, she is sitting in an exotically designed, presumably high-end, restaurant. This sequence is duplicated in part later on to great magnitude. This is a striking way to immediately draw the audience into Astrid’s world. It is also instrumental in conveying the repetition of similar events that is her days. This is a recurrence that is not only powerful, especially when it is recalled, but also suggests that Astrid’s existence is in a stationary state. Such is another way of relating to viewers her expressive roadblocks. Continuing this example is another early segment. It finds Astrid passively attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The bit features one of the attendees mentioning how he admired how the intoxicants which brought him to the gathering made him “numb”. It is this word, and the manner it is presented, which seem to be speaking as much for the young man as it is for Astrid.
Lawson’s brilliant screenplay wisely leaves out the specifics of how Astrid came to be at such a place. Yet, the dialogue, which is as authentic in this instance as it is throughout, certainly allows the mind to put the enigmatic pieces together themselves. It is this inscrutable nature, which also holds a mirror to the personality of Astrid, which forces the watcher to interact. In turn, we become all the more involved in this stirring drama. Punctuating this actuality is an indeterminate finale. What it suggests is haunting. The manner in which it is projected, with the results presumable prefaced through a single line of speech, makes it all the more so.
All of this is further complimented by the subtle, realistic atmosphere Lawson evokes. This comes from both her natural, accomplished behind the lens style. The same can be said for her storytelling capacity. There is never a moment, a situation or action that seems artificial. The existence of these items is never simply, as it would be in lesser hands, to move the plot forward. Such is indefinitely worthy of attention and respect. These are just a few of the many signposts of Lawson’s gargantuan talent planted along the way.
There is tangible beauty, amid the emphasis on the secrets many keep, here. Such is made all the more visible by Matthew Mendelson’s dark, moody, somber and illustrious cinematography. His sharp editing fares just as well. Jamie Sonfroniou’s art direction and wardrobe are exceptional. Darlene Spennato’s make-up is gorgeous. Silvio Canihuante Fernandez provides crisp, proficient sound. The camera department, composed of a personnel of eight, is masterful. “I Can Change” by LCD Soundsystem, “Five Seconds” by Twin Shadow and “Lamb’s Canyon” by Evan Louison and Mendelson provide a riveting sonic ambiance. But, the heart of the success of the labor, aside from Lawson’s contributions, are the stellar performances. Jason De Beer as Matt, Daniel Deutsch as Mark and Nicolas DiPierro as Mike are terrific. They reflect the commonplace mechanisms of the tone exceptionally. Melissa Johnson as Ellen, Travis Mitchell as James and Olivia Sharpe as Maddie grandly enhance the overall quality of the depictions.
Such creates a well-rounded, technically solid slice of life. Lawson avoids the theatrical techniques that could’ve easily been applied to a chronicle such as this at every turn to falsely increase resonance. The result is a fabrication that is all the more rich, varied and bold because of such a decision. A meticulous eye for forthright characterization, all cleverly introduced with nary a wit of exposition, makes Lawson’s abundant aptitude all the more visible. This is a peerless representation of art imitating our existence. With “Numb”, Lawson has crafted a cerebral visual tome; a surefire winner.
The official Facebook page for the project can be found here.