Short, simple, and touching, Tumble Dry Low is the rare sort of film that can take an overused topic (dealing with the loss of a loved one) and give it a sense of narrative life. I’m especially critical when screening short films about grief—it’s a common source of conflict in many indie flicks that often leads towards cliché moments and tired story beats. So, it’s a real testament that director Jefferson Stein’s film managed to grab me emotionally despite my preconceived prejudices.
The key here is simplicity. Stein keeps his narrative mostly wordless—a film comprised of straightforward, visually strong moments. This is a story about moving on in the wake of tragedy and finding strength in loved ones. Fortunately, Stein’s film is sentimental but never schmaltzy. It feels honest where so many other similar shorts feel calculated. Granted, it helps that the film features an adorable young girl who has eyes like saucers (actress Georgia Rose Bell appearing in her first film), but despite the “cute factor” Stein’s film shows a strong sense of indie craft. His use of close-ups—a lighter, a hand reaching for another—are especially effective. As viewers, we get a sense of the relationship between father and daughter without anything feeling too on-the-nose.
I think it’s why I like stories so much—they’re these little advice manuals on how to deal with terrible things that might happen to you in the future.
Communicating via e-mail, Stein explains how he uses the filmmaking process to help deal with his own fears and insecurities. He writes, “My characters are very real to me, so when they figure out how to deal with something, I do as well without having to actually go through what happened to them. I think it’s why I like stories so much—they’re these little advice manuals on how to deal with terrible things that might happen to you in the future. You get to live out a character’s trauma.”
The film was shot on Canon C100 for a shoestring budget ($1500) with minimal crew. Forgoing a formal shot list, Stein’s approach was the opposite of what is often taught in film school. Working with his two non-professional actors, his goal was to keep the process fluid and somewhat improvisational. Although every scene was scripted, Stein let himself make crucial decisions such as blocking, lighting, and framing “in the moment.” It’s a style that would be dangerous for a bigger production. But, for Tumble Dry Low—a film that is small and character driven—it lends credibility to the events on screen.
Stein’s next endeavor is to try to pull off a science fiction short in a similar style as Tumble Dry Low (i.e. small, character driven, and without any special effects). Sci-Fi with soul? We’ll take it.