One of the highlights of this year’s Sundance, Hot Seat is a terrific coming-of-age story that blends diverse genres in a unusually thoughtful way. Set at a birthday party populated by teens from an all-female school, the film plays with “Mean Girls” social hierarchies and elements of raunch comedy, but opts against the broad caricatures of those forms, instead homing in on its young protagonist’s uncertainty and confusion to create a nuanced character profile of a girl who is struggling to be accepted. Along the way, the film makes profound points on the nature of group identity, performative sexuality, and victimhood.
Andrea (Jess Gabor), is an awkward guest at the party of cool girl Daphne. Desirous of her attention and approval, Andrea makes Daphne an intricate friendship bracelet for her 18th birthday only to have it received somewhat dismissively, as Daphne’s attention shifts to a different girl and her gift—a pack of smokes. This clever scene is emblematic of the talent and skill of writer/director Anna Kerrigan, as it seems simple, but is actually accomplishing a lot by concisely establishing the twin vectors of tension in the film within the first 90 seconds. It situates Andrea’s low standing on the social pecking order in relation to Daphne, her desire to bridge that divide, but also Daphne and the larger group’s posturing of maturity, contrasting Andrea’s innocent girlishness (symbolized through the friendship bracelet) with an edgier vice (smoking) that is a time-honored touchstone of the transition out of youth into adulthood.
These twin tensions set up all that follows, as the party takes a rebellious turn with the arrival of its entertainment, the stripper Johnny Ca$h, and which quickly barrels out of control with the “hot seat” of the film’s title. It is a long scene that comprises the bulk of the film, and should not be spoiled, but despite the girls gone wild premise, the film is more preoccupied by the squeamish emotions of the girls, as Johnny Ca$h is truly a prop for the real drama. The film adroitly depicts the inter-dynamics of the group — the way that this rather gross stereotype of sexual liberation is in fact discomfitting to them, yet perpetuated by peer pressure. Also intriguing to note is the subtle lesbian subtext to Andrea’s affection for Daphne, which, considering Kerrigan’s previous work, is not accidental, but which is not explicit either. Indeed the way that teen girl relationships take on the intensity of romantic ones is a fascinating subplot to a film that presents no shortage of material worth mulling over, and the concision and focus with which these themes of sex and friendship are explored is both highly entertaining, and very impressive.
Kerrigan first arrived on our radar with the 2015 web series, The Impossibilities. As the head of Vimeo Staff Picks at the time, and fresh off the the company’s success with High Maintenance, I was keenly on the lookout for episodic shows that could duplicate that show’s success. This was largely a fool’s errand, but The Impossibilities was one of the few shows I found that produced the depth and nuance of character we were looking for. Nominated for a Gotham Award, the film was picked up for international distribution by Studio Plus, and is available on Vimeo On Demand for US fans. This success kicked off a busy stretch for Kerrigan, resulting in high profiles fellowships with the inaugural Sundance New Voices Lab, and the Fox Global Directors Initiative, and a directing gig on a new Super Deluxe web series called The Chances, which, like Hot Seat, took part in Sundance 2017. What’s next for Kerrigan is reportedly a high-concept TV project, as well as a feature version of Hot Seat. Stay tuned!