One of the most impressive things a short film can achieve is to establish a sense of place. Yellow, above all else, transports the viewer viscerally into the low-stakes world of amateur dirt-track racing to such an extent that you swear you can smell the fumes. World-building can cover up a multitude of sins, but fortunately Yellow doesn’t need the help. A grimy noir thriller, the film effectively builds upon its keen specificity into a darkly satisfying tale of friendship and betrayal, one that effectively balances character and plot all the way through to its explosive finale.
Jesse “The Thrill” Hill, a 3rd-generation racer at the New Jersey track at which the film was shot, stars as the film’s lead, Davy. A racer hard on his luck, Davy is under pressure on multiple fronts—by his reliance on the dead-end chicken farmer job he earns his money at, by his eager mechanic, Skip, whom he’s promised race time to, and by his own sense that, after some rough outings, his racing dreams may be slipping away. The situation feels like it’s headed for trouble until a mysterious man emerges offering aid. The catch is, he represents an even more mysterious money man, one who has sadistic tastes when it comes his racing entertainment.
As mentioned, the action, plot and character work are all kept in skilled balance by the film’s two writer-directors, a pair of Alexanders, Maxwell and Hankoff. Hankoff is an award-winning DP and Maxwell works for The Mill+, the content division of the famed post-production house. As commercial directors without a ton of narrative work to their resume, the quality of performances they are able to elicit is exciting. Hill is not an actor by trade, but is effective in a role built around his strengths. It’s a mostly silent, stoic picture of simmering masculine rage—he’s disappointed by his failure, embarrassed by the need to supplicate to his boss, and when he finally does explode it is against Skip, in a classic case of misplaced anger. Mike Faist currently on Broadway in Dear Evan Hansen, handles Skip, which is a slightly more nuanced role, allowing for growth from a classic gee-golly sidekick to a person ready to step out from the shadow of another.
Of course, a film set in a macho, adrenalized world needs to look the part as well, and Yellow’s style deserves special mention. With a professional DP in Hankoff as co-director, you would expect a certain flair to the look, but Yellow was a lean production, as a small crew of six was used to pull it off, so some ingenuity was needed in execution. There are a plethora of tricks used to bring the racing to vivid life, a mixed bag of modified go-pros, Red cam and DSLRs in crash boxes were used to shoot, and if you nerd out about this stuff, the film received an excellent profile in American Cinematographer magazine, that I encourage you to read. What is immediately striking about the film to me is how dark it is, but, utilizing a high-contrast look, the found-light approach helps establish a level of spookiness to the proceedings. That sense spookiness is what the pair credit with the inspiration for the film, as they were shooting a music video together at a race track in Arizona in 2013 and were struck by the setting and a desire to place a narrative there.
I have yet to highlight the the script itself, yet and that is a shame. Maxwell is an NYU Tisch grad, and it blends genre with the kind of observationally minded, character-driven indie I associate with that school. At 17min Yellow is on the longer side of shorts that we feature, but I was guided along fluidly without checking the progress bar. It is somewhat conventional, and it will not wow you with its dialogue, but above all else it is a very smartly structured film, with a deliciously macabre hook, and a twist that actually delivers. A really fine example of the kind of mature genre piece they say doesn’t get made anymore, Yellow is one of my favorite shorts of the year to date.