Derek Milton came to our attention with little fanfare. His film, Getting a Grammy, is such an amateurish-looking piece that it was difficult to distinguish whether it was the product of a purposeful aesthetic or the result of common ineptness. The story of a quixotic quest to see a white lie to its end and create a replica Grammy to show off to his friends, the film’s appeal lay squarely in Milton’s personal charisma as a narrator and the comedic timing of the documentary-style script. However, that appeal was so great that the film found a spot on our 2021 Short Awards where I proclaimed that it was “…a masterpiece that’s about what’s within, rather than on the surface.”
Off this one data point, I pigeon-holed Milton as a unique personality that might thrive in a YouTube age as a thoughtful direct-to-camera creator in the vein of a John Wilson or perhaps Eric Andre at his prankish best. Pussybaby supports that impression at first, as it begins with a title bumper for a reality show called “Act Right or Act Wrong?”. The narration and the lo-fi video look invoke the memory of Getting a Grammy, and I looked forward to a fresh helping of awkward real-world humor.
Pussybaby has other things in mind though, as the reality setup is just a jumping-off point to establish the film’s premise. “Act Right or Act Wrong?” is a hidden-camera style show that candidly captures strangers in fraught ethical situations to see how they might react. When Shaliek is presented with a man verbally abusing his girlfriend in a grocery store parking lot he takes the initial step to intervene. But, when the man becomes aggressive, Shaliek wilts. According to the host, the situation was “starting to get too pathetic”, so out comes the crew. Embarrassed, what Shaliek does not realize at that moment is how profoundly his life will be affected by the soon-to-be viral recording of his humiliation.
What follows is an exceedingly well-directed and performed farce, as Shaliek’s notoriety spreads at an astronomical rate. In a single day, Shaliek’s life unravels at a dizzying pace as he experiences trouble at home, professional disappointment, and even common abuse from strangers. Milton and his editor, Mark D. Spencer, modulate this descent into chaos and madness perfectly, as the pace and absurdity build into a terrible crescendo.
Milton explains that he has long had a fascination with the reality format that precipitates the film’s action, telling us that he “was always curious as to what happens to the people who’ve made the ‘wrong’ choice in those hidden-camera-social-situation shows. Are they faced with repercussions in their personal life afterward? Is their decision to not step forward and ‘do the right thing’ any worse than the exploitative nature of the show they’re on?” Pussybaby humorously grapples with some big questions—society’s expectations for masculinity, online pile-ons, and the deleterious effect that sudden notoriety can have on “normal” people in a social media age. Unlike most films that touch on this subject matter, Pussybaby has an intriguing third act where Shaliek himself is able to interrogate some of these questions, though his travails have not necessarily granted him wisdom or clarity.
It would be wrong though to imply that Pussybaby is motivated by any grand point to be made regarding manhood, the struggling creative class, or even culture at large. The script proceeds loosely, even playfully, like an exercise in where the premise will lead, and there is a lot of pleasure in following the twists and ramifications that Milton is able to spin out of Shaliek’s viral humiliation. This is paired with a masterful production, however, with great design, cinematography, and performances. Pussybaby ends up being the kind of impressive short film that is the exact opposite of the shaggy and DiY Getting a Grammy, but they are united by their essential quality. We’re pleased to premiere the film online today right as it is beginning its festival run. Programmers, get in touch—this is a film that is sure to be a crowd-pleaser at your event.