"In the absence of love and belonging there is always suffering." - Brene Brown
I sometimes wish I could get filmmakers to understand that love is the most powerful force in the cinematic universe. Month after month, my desk is flooded with a myriad of submissions for review and month after month the vast majority of those submissions are indie horror, action flicks, and/or films that simply find their meaning in the conflicts and divisions of life.
There is nothing wrong with indie horror. There is nothing wrong with action flicks. There is certainly nothing wrong with films that explore life's great conflicts and divisions.
These films most certainly have a place in the world.
There is something special, however, when a film crosses my desk that refuses, passionately and fervently refuses, to cater to the whims and impulses, rages and divisions. There is something special when a filmmaker chooses love and hope, kindness and empathy.
Director Todd Sandler's A Cohort of Guests is such a film, a 15-minute short that sets itself amidst the traumas and dramas of the real world yet also a 15-minute short film that chooses love instead of hate, peace instead of conflict.
It's a simple film, really, a film about a group of friends who have gathered at one of the couple's garden patio for a relaxed evening of friendship, conversation, and a little wine. There is tension in moments, yet the friendships are stronger even when the differences in opinion are wide.
An unwanted "guest" arrives.
The story, written by Alexa Gilker and based on a true event, is a simple yet powerful one and it is brought to life beautifully by an ensemble cast that understands the finer nuances of a quiet moment and a facial expression. In the vast majority of films, you know how this all would go and you know how this all would end. For Sandler, however, his artistic integrity is firmly intact and his sense of purpose demands an alternative to the usual histrionics. It demands compassion. It demands possibility.
It demands hope.
It's difficult to describe A Cohort of Guests without giving it all away. The friends who have gathered at the home of Jon (Drew Rausch Grey's Anatomy, Longmire) and Jasmine (Kelly McCreary Grey's Anatomy, Castle) include Julia (Sarah Drew Grey's Anatomy, Mad Men), Anne Marie (Danielle Savre Station 19, Heroes), and the married duo of Patrick (Brandon Scott 13 Reasons Why, Dead To Me) and Meg (Jasika Nicole Fringe, The Good Doctor). It is a rock star cast, you could say, but the joy here is that they're performing precisely as human beings gathered together to both celebrate friendship and to celebrate the birth of Jon and Jasmine's daughter.
The unexpected guest is portrayed vividly by Jake Borelli (Grey's Anatomy, NCIS) with an aura that is both menacing yet vulnerable. There's an ache in his actions and his actions, while threatening, feel as if they have the weight of the world behind them. It's a strong performance that doesn't feel strong. It's devoid of heightened drama and histrionics and instead filled to the brim with naturalism and honesty. There's one single solitary moment when he hears a voice in the background that is just plain beautiful acting as his menace becomes inexplicably touched by all that has happened around him.
While the rest of the ensemble is strong, Jasika Nicole is, quite honestly, simply riveting here. I can't lie. I cried watching her face and listening to her words and believing, truly believing, in almost unfathomable kindness and simple gestures that looking back aren't so simple. It's a beautiful performance that could have turned caricaturish so easily but never does.
Kudos, indeed, for the entire ensemble. They hold space for one another beautifully, allowing silent moments to remain silently filled by facial expressions and body language and simple gestures that remind us of their long existing friendships. Nick Mahar's lensing is solid throughout, practically a silhouette in the early scenes yet intimate and unnerving as the story unfolds.
A Cohort of Guests had its world premiere at the 34th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival and has proven to be popular at such fests as L.A. Shorts, Phoenix Film Festival, Napa Valley Film Festival, and OutWest Film Festival. It's a shame that it didn't play here in my hometown of Indy at the Heartland International Film Festival as Sandler's vision of challenging viewers "to shift their perspective from one of hopelessness and die-hard partisanship to one of hope, understanding, and openness" is a natural Heartland fit.
There is an incredible joy when a film like A Cohort of Guests crosses my desk, not because I never want to see a horror film and not because I don't want to experience cinema that explores the darkest corners of our society but because I cherish filmmakers who still believe that movies matter and can change the world and that even when hope seems impossible there's still hope and a little act of kindness can ripple and ripple and ripple.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic