Earlier this year, the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge celebrated its 5th year of giving filmmakers - with and without disabilities - the opportunity to collaborate and tell unique stories that showcase disability in its many forms. The film challenge is a weekend-long filmmaking contest, open to all, that provides a platform for new voices in the entertainment industry. Each year, the aspiring filmmakers are given a mere 55 hours total to write, produce, and complete a short film. The 2018 Heartland International Film Festival is showcasing the challenge's 14 finalists in one special presentation. The Independent Critic is offering up brief reviews of each short, while noting that the challenge's winners have already been reviewed by The Independent Critic.
Jordan's Cake tells the story of young Jordan, a boy on the autism spectrum who struggles to communicate his wants and needs, including a distracted family currently going through some dire financial struggles in this 5-minute short directed by Shanalyna C. Palmer and co-written by Aeric Adams and Sunshine Brathwaite, Palmer, Tiffany Lyle, Crystal Nicole Ramos, and Joe Michael Spinola.
The film is a graphic, poignant lesson in the inner workings of autism and a reminder that while someone may have communication challenges it doesn't mean they don't have a whole lot to say. Mikkel Palmer is Jordan, while Jetta Strayhorn is the sister who isn't quite getting what Jordan is saying until the film moves its way toward an incredibly sweet ending.
Final Grade: B-, 2.5 Stars
Gia and Dragon is the beautiful little tale of a single dad who struggles to explain to his daughter with a disability, who has never walked, the painful difficulties of her birthday wish to fly like a dragon. Directed by John Lawson and written by Hunter M. Altman and Conor Hanney, Gia and Dragon is a guaranteed heart-tugger owing mostly to the adorably wonderful performance by young Gia Lopez, who proves that "wheelchair bound" is a phrase that never need be used. The film ends with a sublime song contribution by Katherine Liner, but it's really the warm chemistry between Lopez and Parvesh Cheena as her father that really sells this ambitious, entertaining short film. The film was inspired by the book "Caleb's Birthday Wish."
Final Grade: B, 3 Stars
Uncommon Ground centers around Sophia (Sophia Adele Saux), a young girl who has spent much of her short life searching for people with whom she shares common ground - this does not include her brother, Liam (Liam Michel Saux), whose disability thus far has largely kept him from sharing interests with his sister. When her situation suddenly changes, Sophia discovers that it may just be from people who are different from her, including her brother, that she actually learns the most. Uncommon Ground is written and directed by Lori Murphy Saux, very much making the film a family affair. As a fun piece of trivia, Uncommon Ground was screened at the Bentonville Film Festival on May 3, 2018, in the Walmart Museum World Room and despite some minor tech challenges is the kind of film that's sure to resonate with audiences.
Final Grade: C+, 2.5 Stars
The #1 Fan tells the tale of Scooby (Dennis "Scooby" Willoughby), a man with Down Syndrome who is also considered the local high school football team's good luck charm. However, when his bully of a boss keeps him at work late on the night of a big game, Scooby has to figure out how to do his job while also supporting his team. This six-minute short film features one of the film challenge's Best Actor finalists in Willoughby and is written/directed by Brian Swinehart. While the film struggles through some tech issues, especially in editing, it's the kind of story that seems to go viral in social media all the time and Willoughby makes for a natural presence on the big screen.
Final Grade: C, 2 Stars
Limited Space is a delightful six-minute short film that refreshingly weaves disability into ordinary life in telling the story of Emmitt, who must cope with his jealous-fueled insecurities when a close friend achieves tremendous success. The film stars a spot-on Eric Graise, whose performance also garnered a spot as a finalist amongst the challenge's Best Actors. Graise has an incredibly winning presence on the screen, emotionally honest yet funny and he turns this into a film that is destined to be one of this collection's favorites. The ending? Absolutely sublime. Graise also wrote and directed the film and, indeed, is a creative force to be reckoned with. I can't wait to see what he does next.
Grade: B, 3 Stars
Rivals or Friends stars Tamara Mena, the lone female among the Best Actor finalists for the film challenge. In the film, Cassandra and Isabel are two models and influencers who spend most of their time trying to one-up each other. Brought together by a photo shoot, Cassandra ends up falling out of her wheelchair causing the two to reflect on their competitive natures and realize that maybe they should be empowering one another rather than tearing each other down. Mena co-stars with Dru Presta in this film directed by Christopher Gallardo and co-written by Gallardo with Mena. The film carries a sublime message while also putting disability and beauty together - too often not the case. While Mena picked up the nomination, one must also say that she and Presta are an absolute joy together.
Grade: B-, 2.5 Stars
Woody's Beans was one of the finalists in the Best Filmmaker category for Joel Blacker. The film tells the story of a self-conscious commercial actor who refuses to say a compromising line at the risk of becoming an internet meme. However, the passionate director ain't having it and insists he go through with the line. The just over five-minute short film will register with anyone who's ever worked on a low-budget indie set, while the film's light spirit is contagious and fun. Very much an ensemble film, Woody's Beans is fun from beginning to end.
Grade: B, 3 Stars
Ain't Woke is another refreshingly different short in that it tackles subject matter not often found when someone says "disability short." The film is a buddy comedy about two incredibly mismatched hitmen, or women, who find common ground when they're faced with a hostage who tries to ally himself as a supporter of the #TimesUp movement. Written and directed by Cory Reeder, also a nominee for Best Filmmaker, Ain't Woke is quite the hoot, featuring an ensemble, inclusive cast in nicely non-traditional roles pulled off beautifully. It's an original idea nicely assembled - especially when you remember that from beginning to end it all came together in a mere 55 hours.
Grade: B-, 2.5 Stars
Committed will make you fall in love with Rachel Handler, who co-writes, co-directs, and co-stars in this hilarious little short film centered around Calvin (Colin Buckingham), who announces he's proposing to Leesa (Jaleesa Graham) and moving to the suburbs - a plan that doesn't set well with Rebecca (Handler) and Dennis (Damond McFarland). Committed finds its rhythm early on in its nearly six-minute running time and is filled with an abundance of charm, sweetness and wit by its ensemble cast that is perfectly cast. Co-directed by Handler with Crystal Arnette based off a script by Handler, Kara Moulter, and Melanie Waldman, Committed may not have won the prize but it sure won my heart. Crystal Arnette also does the film's lensing and it's spot-on dazzling, while the film's original music added up to a perfect final touch.
Grade: B+, 3.5 Stars
Best Enemies tells the story of a 15-year-old girl with disabilities who is forced to work with her bully and they both discover they may have more in common than they'd ever imagined. Directed by Emily Hopper, Best Enemies tells a familiar story but it's a winnie story brought nicely to life thanks to its terrific ensemble cast and rock solid production values all around. It's a definite winner.