We vouch for all the films we feature on Short of the Week, but today’s pick, Lowland Kids, is especially remarkable. A coming-of-age tale wrapped inside an environmental issue doc (or vice versa?), the film successfully puts human faces to the pressing issue of climate change. While it is a topic that most concede is vital in importance, it is one that, via its enormity, is often abstracted away from the particulars of individual lives. Celebrated commercial director Sandra Winther rectifies this gap in the discourse with an intensely intimate look at the on-the-ground stakes of environmental devastation, taking her crew down to the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, site of America’s first “climate refugees”, to profile two teenagers who are desperate to remain in the only home they’ve ever known—even as they come to grips with the inevitability of their loss.
At its heart, the film is a profile doc, that ubiquitous format so popular on the internet. We have conflicted feelings about the genre, which is the most popular type of film submitted to our site. The documentary boom of the past decade created a profusion of these kinds of shorts, capitalizing on both the relative ease of their production and audience’s inherent fascination with quirky or inspiring characters. They have become so popular as “content” for publications and brands that it is easy to be cynical and forget the subversive potential of the form. Profile docs can provide the rare opportunity to highlight normal people and normal lives with the intensity and care we usually reserve for fictional constructions. There is nothing “special” about the Brunets, the teens at the heart of Lowland Kids, they are just two kids trying to make the best of a situation over which they are powerless. When profile docs are utilized towards this end instead of highlighting celebs, titans of industry, or news-cycle heroes, the results can be exquisitely poignant.
It is a challenge for filmmakers to operate with these types of subjects though. To profile people that do not possess a strong human interest “hook” requires a high degree of execution during production, as one does not have the inherent buy-in of audiences via the premise. Climate change is, in a sense, the high-concept cover for the project, the existential force which drives its drama, but the film is at its weakest when it tries to tackle the subject head-on. Time spent with the Brunets is the beating heart of the film, and Winther and her producers, William Crouse and Lauren Avinoam, obviate the need for character exceptionalism through depth—the crew spent 2 weeks in Louisiana for the shoot, creating a level of familiarity and immersion with their subjects that is both rare for profile doc shorts, and also apparent on-screen. It allows for magic to occur in the in-between spaces, as Winther, and her cinematographer, Todd Martin, are able to transcribe to the screen the poeticism and grace of what is seemingly routine.
The film shares some DNA with a subgenre of Documentary I call cinematic verité, a type of film that, in the verité tradition, is largely fly-on-the-wall but which, through a focus on cinematography and coordinated movement, provides a Malick-ian cinematic grandeur to otherwise mundane action. Touchstones of this style would be feature films Rich Hill, These Birds Walk, or Only the Young, and, like those films, Lowland Kids is both about “unimportant” people and is truly gorgeous to watch—the short takes full advantage of both the natural splendor of the setting, but also the talents of Martin and Winther, which, honed by extensive commercial experience, allows them to produce bravura sequences. A particular favorite comes near the end of the film as a birthday is celebrated around a firepit at night. Using only available light, the sequence is a seemingly simple, but subtly complex, as Martin’s camera engages in a dance of dramatic swoops and expertly framed reactions of faces perfectly illuminated despite the challenging conditions. This short scene is exquisitely edited by Laura Tomaselli with wonderful pacing, a microcosm of the remarkable naturalism she is able to preserve across the 22min runtime. It is a credit to her that the film never feels that long due to her calibration of the overall rhythm—pulling you out and moving you along at just the right moment when the proceedings threaten to become stale.
Lowland Kids had its world premiere at SXSW 2019, and went on to win the Audience Award for Documentary at that year’s Palm Springs Shortfest. Its notable festival run was capped off by Cinema Eye Honors nomination for Best Non-Fiction of the year, and it’s making its premiere today on Vimeo and YouTube.