The Strange Ones should be frustrating to watch. It denies basic, conventional pleasures—backstory, plot, resolution, certainty—instead thrusting you straight into the seemingly mundane odyssey of two unnamed travelers. The dialogue between the two young men, stranded by a broken-down car, is perfunctory, and does little to shed light on who they are and why they are traveling together. They arrive at a motel manned by a lone woman, and at the end leave with little of consequence having occurred. And yet, AND YET—The Strange Ones is a masterful short film. The directors, Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff exhibit such exquisite control of tone, and imbue the mundanity with such unplaceable dread, that the uncertainty becomes an alluring feature instead of a bug, as subtle nuances undermine your understanding of the situation and hint at a darkness just below the surface.
An older film by the standards of this site, having premiered on the festival circuit in 2011, The Strange Ones was adapted as the duo’s debut feature film last year. In a review of the full-length, critic David Edelstein wrote something smart, which applies equally well to the short, noting it is “a perfect demonstration of how the craft of storytelling is also the craft of withholding”. The Strange Ones is hard to classify, but I would term it a thriller despite it’s notable lack of chases, or even antagonists. The way the script written by Radcliff and Wolkstein slowly dribbles out information, and the way that information is supported, or undercut, by the careful performances of its leads David Call and Tobias Campbell, continually rewrites the meaning of the film—it’s a high-wire act that could feel manipulative, or simply fall flat at any time, yet the complications lead to multiple potential interpretations, each with high stakes. By consciously denying the viewer a glimpse of objective truth, the film skirts frustration, but instead delivers a challenging experience that is enjoyable to contemplate.
There are a lot of tips here for aspiring filmmakers to crib, the edit being one of the foremost in my mind. The challenge with these kind of deliberate films that establish so much via mood, is to keep audiences engaged. 14min is long for a short film, and despite the lack of action, my attention never flagged. The film is blocked well, with a relatively high number of shots, and as such no shot is required to linger. While never verging into being busy, each cut routinely occurs a beat or two quicker than I expected, maintaining a sense of propulsion. Additionally nearly every shot has action within it, sustaining momentum—no scenic establishing shots or unnecessary cutaways. While few shots are sophisticated in their motion, the DP, Drew Innis employs frequent zooms that lend flavor to static compositions, and contribute to the thriller vibe.
Radcliff and Wolkstein met as students in Columbia University’s Grad Film program, but it was not until the completion of their respective thesis films that they started working together. Already emerging stars via their student shorts, Stranger and the SXSW-winning Cigarette Candy respectively, the duo first joined up on The Strange Ones, and it has been a fruitful partnership, with both becoming favorites of the American indie scene in the intervening years. Radcliff’s directing followup, Jonathan’s Chest, played Sundance, as did Wolkstein’s marvelous short, Social Butterfly. Radcliff edited that film, and Wolkstein’s entry in the Collective: Unconscious anthology film as well. The Strange Ones short also happened to be the birth of another important partnership for both filmmakers, as they teamed up with emerging production company and distributor Ad Astra for the first time. The french company has proven a key collaborator, producing both Radcliff and Wolkstein’s followup shorts as well as the feature, which debuted at SXSW 2017.
The feature is worth your time, especially if this short catches your fancy. Released theatrically in the US earlier this year, it is available on most VOD platforms, as well as on the US streaming service Hulu. For French viewers the film will premiere theatrically next week, so follow the project on Facebook for the latest news regarding that!