FUTURESTATES, the innovative web short film series sponsored by the Independent Television Service , kicked off its second season this week with some highly anticipated screenings at SXSW. While I’m sure it was a fun party, the series is designed for the web, so starting today us online short film lovers will see the slow rollout of 10 digital shorts dedicated to “Imagining tomorrow’s America today”—via the kind of smart speculative sci-fi that’s hard to come by now days. If the series holds true to its first season, all the films will possess a vaguely dystopian air to them, and whether or not that is conscious priority by the producers or simply what makes for entertaining programming, each of the films looks to cast an insightful lens upon all-too-real possibilities for society’s future, provoking discussion.
As you might remember, our favorite short of last year, Ramin Bahrani’s Plastic Bag, was part of FUTURESTATE’s first season, so with today’s online debut of Beholder, directed by Nisha Ganatra, expectations are high.
“Beholder takes place in the biosphere-protected Red Estates, a gated community with a socially conservative political majority. At a clinic where patients can genetically engineer their children, Sasha, the wife of rising political star Bobby Aryana, is informed that her baby carries the genetic marker for homosexuality. By the laws of Red Estates, this is an aberration that must be dealt with immediately, and Sasha must decide between staying faithful to the love of her life or risking everything. Touching on issues of race, sexual orientation, and conformity Beholder examines the notion of identity and the costs of belonging.”
Certainly a provocative premise, with Beholder the series returns to the topic of reproductive technology, a concern that was the center of one Season One’s best films, Tze Chun’s Silver Sling. There are even some similarities in structure between the two films—a difficult decision, a helpful nurse—but by being more ambitious, Beholder ironically sets itself up as the lesser of the two efforts.
The film is a total pro production, with the experienced hand of Ganatra directing and the Image Hunter himself, Eric Koretz providing cinematography. The production design is simple and tasteful with its “futuristic” elements, and as a Mad Men fan I was pleasantly surprised to see Jessica Paré in the lead role as Sasha. However I could not help but feel the film was less than the sum of its parts, most likely due to Ganatra’s script.
Beholder suffers because it is entirely about a character’s interior journey, but her actions and decisions seem entirely directed by a goal-oriented plot, and unfortunately the plot doesn’t take you anywhere particularly interesting. Developments are fairly transparent with a limp ending-twist, and as such, it’s hard to ever really feel connection to the character. Paré seems lost trying to figure out what to do. Momentous decisions are made by her character while as an audience we feel divorced from her thought process, puzzling over questions and contradictions that go unexplored.
These criticism point towards my earlier statement, that in being ambitious in theme, the script shortchanges emotional development and character integrity. Rather than being impressed by the strength of Sasha’s conviction, I ended dismissive of her flightiness and hypocrisy. While a long film for a short at 20 minutes, I think the runtime needed to be even greater in order to have the space in which to organically allow the character to unfold and convince an audience of such radical shifts in worldview.
You might feel differently, and the film is commendable, for, like it says in the description above, highlighting the intersection of a lot fascinating and debatable topics. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Either way, my mild disappointment in the first episode can’t dampen my enthusiasm for this exciting project. Congrats to the whole production team, I will continue to check back in with future installments. Next one comes out Monday.