Arguably, the most haunting time in a person’s life is childhood. Early on, the ills of the adult world are indecipherable, and unless you’re some sort of emotional wunderkind, you might not know how to process sadness or tragedy or anything else that feels like it exists in a minor key. Maybe you see a cat get run over by a car, or you witness a person you love bleeding for the first time, and this memory gets stuck in your brain like a cut that scabs into a scar that never really heals. If the memory stays there for long enough, you might grow up and choose to mine it for inspiration. It’s a time honored tradition, and it generally results in stories that resonate with large numbers of people who are haunted by their own childhood memories.
Stranding is a delicate, melancholic example of how a weird thing you see or feel as a kid can marinate in the brain over time and be turned into meaningful art. It’s the story of Theo – an only child whose parents have just announced their divorce – and a beached whale that shows up one day in the seaside town he lives in. It’s loosely based on the experience of producer and co-writer Reef Oldberg (Are You Still There?, Notice Me, Whitetail Bucks), who saw a washed up whale on the coast of Mexico, and as is the way with nautical dramas, it has a dose of mythology thrown in to give it a crust of salty authenticity. Similarly, director and co-writer Ben Kadie sought to “capture the big, existential feelings [he] felt all the time as a kid,” and the main character’s anxieties will feel familiar to anyone who ever felt like they saw things too clearly at a young age.
Saturated with the dreamy veneer of magical realism and a nostalgic style of animation from Ben that evokes the kind of stuff the talented kids would make in grade school art class, it’s one of those deceptively layered films that burrows its way into your psyche. It’s about a boy and a whale, but it’s also about the wounds of early childhood trauma, the fear of abandonment that arises when two parents choose to divorce, and the erosive effects of climate change on the lives of those who reside in seaside towns.
There’s an air of loneliness and isolation to not only the character of Theo, but the film’s overall mood, which makes sense, as it was made via remote collaboration during the height of the pandemic. The team used a combination of motion capture techniques and After Effects puppet rigs to create something unique, then turned solid colors into brush strokes to rough it up a little bit and give it some life. One can imagine a film like this might have been made as a life raft for filmmakers who were learning how to stay creative without being able to really go outside and collaborate in a more traditional way, and it’s another example that all you really need to make a solid short film is talent, time, and the patience to craft something in a dark room.
All in all, the film does a wonderful job of illustrating the ways children manage to escape from harsh truths they’re not ready to accept yet and find peace in nature, and the parallels between a kid fearing the loss a stable family life and a whale getting separated from its pod run are worth examining. The film is both peaceful and uneasy, like swimming in a large body of water that you can’t see the bottom of, wondering what it all means and what the future holds. I hope you find a glimmer of your younger days when watching it – I certainly did.