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The Independent Critic

 Indy Shorts Screens High School Film Competition  
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Founded in 2010 by Bob and Alison Spoonmore, the High School Film Competition features student work with Narrative, Documentary, and Indiana category winners competing for the Summer White Lynch Memorial Grand Prize. The prize is underwritten by Gary D. & Marlene Cohen. Originally presented as part of the Heartland Film Festival, when Heartland Film began presenting Indy Shorts in 2018 this competition, which includes all short films, came along with it. This year's selections are screening twice during the 2019 Indy Shorts International Film Festival! 

Parking Lot
Written and Directed by: Jack Nordstrom; Starring: Griffin Gunn-Myers, Rory Gesner, Lucy Thomas, Harris Culhane; Running Time: 5 Mins. 

Written and directed by Jack Nordstrom, Parking Lot is an amusing, slice-of-life film set squarely within the high school scene that follows an awkward student (Griffin Gunn-Myers) who searches for his limited edition "Star Trek" pen so he can finish his drawings. Competing within the Narrative category, Parking Lot is a nicely shot, lightly amusing short with a dry sensibility and fun, identifiable characters. Easily one of the lighter entries among this year's high school finalists, Parking Lot doesn't necessarily chart any new territory but it sure makes the familiar territory a lot more fun. 

The Last Straw
Written and Directed by: Julian Jordan; Featured Subjects: Aji Piper, Chris Jordan, Dr. Cara Field, Grace McGee, and Kyle Trefny; Running Time: 13 Mins. 

The Last Straw is an impactful short doc addressing the problem, causes, and effects of oceanic plastic pollution. The film takes the somewhat unique perspective of approaching the matter from the point of view of the current generation of teenagers who will soon be inheriting this massive issue and its consequences. 

While no documentary has a cinematic obligation to present every side of the issue, I found The Last Straw's obvious bias a little too one-sided and, as such, had a difficult time giving myself to the film. While writer/director Julian Jordan presents the material enthusiastically and with technical creativity, The Last Straw also completely ignores the well publicized issue of a straw ban's dramatic impact on persons with disabilities. Additionally, while the film nicely incorporates global statistics there's very little offered in the way of the U.S.'s contribution to the problem. 

While The Last Straw is a nicely done short, its obvious bias at least modestly mutes its overall impact despite Jordan's obvious passion for the subject matter and the thoughtful, passionate interviewees featured in the 13-minute film. 

Dear America
Directed by: Molly Smith, Sage Croft; Written by: Molly Smith; Starring: Julia Jordan, Tierney Smith, Maui Kai Malone, Jackson Tessmer, and Harlan Drum; Running Time: 4 Mins; Official Facebook

Dear America is what could easily be called a 4-minute anthemic call to action written by Molly Smith and co-directed by Smith with Sage Croft. Centered around the subject of school-based gun violence impacting Generation Z, Dear America is a dramatically presented and powerfully written short film that goes for immediate impact without resorting to histrionics. The film was winner of the National STN Award at the Student Television Network Nationals and is competing in the Narrative category at Indy Shorts. 

Created by and for Generation Z, Dear America speaks out about recent tragedies and is relentlessly passionate in its delivery, presentation, and imagery. The film's ensemble cast is diverse and uniformly impactful, especially its younger cast members who, quite simply, will absolutely break your heart. 

Written and Directed by: Sarah Williams; Starring: Aria Spencer, Collin Nelson, and Miles Rosenbloom; Running Time: 5 Mins. 

The 5-minute Starfish is another heartbreaker of a film among this year's High School Film Competition finalists. Written and directed by Sarah Williams, Starfish is an exploration of the strained relationship between a young boy with Asperger's Syndrome and his mother. The film offers a glimpse of what unfolds when the tension between the two arises, a glimpse that is remarkably authentic and simultaneously jarring and heartbreaking in its quietly mesmerizing presentation here. The film's ensemble cast is haunting in bringing to life this story, while Williams's storytelling is sparse yet impeccable. While working on a low budget can be challenging, Williams shows promise as a filmmaker as she makes any perceived lacking absolutely work to the benefit of the film. 

This House Has Eyes
Written and Directed by: Theo Taplitz; Starring: Nicholas Taplitz, Daniel Taplitz; Running Time: 7 Mins. 

Theo Taplitz is an immensely gifted student filmmaker who should be familiar to Indy Shorts audiences. He's back this year with not one, but two short films in this year's competition and they're both incredibly top notch efforts. This House Has Eyes is a beautifully photographed film that is simply hypnotic to watch unfold. In the film, a house and an invalid boy work together to keep the young boy's fragile relationship with his depressed caretaker afloat. Taplitz has a remarkable visual presentation and has crafted a thought-provoking, memorable short film that lingers in your psyche' long after its closing credits. The film's a quite wonderful technical achievement, its production design intimate and immersive while lensing is mysterious and filled with an unknowing tension. Taplitz unquestionably has a promising future in filmmaking and I eagerly anticipate his future efforts. 

The Astral Project
Directed by: Natalie Christensen; Written by: Frances McDaniel; Featured Subjects: Frances McDaniel, Odessa Hott, and India Cloe; Running Time: 4 Mins. 

The Astral Project is a 4-minute ethereal, mystical doc centered around Frances McDaniel. In the film McDaniel reflects on herself, the past, and how she creates art as a cathartic experience through photos and writing. The Astral Project is often so mystical that you may not immediately realize you're actually dealing with a documentary. One of the more unique entries this year, The Astral Project is a short but memorable effort. 

Grey Heart
Written and Directed by: Theo Taplitz; Starring: Jamie Burris, Olivia Eggleston, and RJ Solomon; Running Time: 11 Mins. 

The second finalist entry by Taplitz this year is Grey Heart, a melancholy yet richly human endeavor centered around a broken family trying desperately to not be broken. In the film, young Holden is trying to be the "man of the house" after his father abandons the family; though Holden's efforts to prove his independence cause both inner turmoil and strain on the family. Determined to prove his independence, Holden plans to get his driver's license while his baby sister is simultaneously retreating into a fantasy world. Throughout it all, an obviously traumatized mother tries to hold the increasingly splintered family together. 

Grey Heart is, as is typically true for Taplitz, beautifully photographed and compelling to watch. The ensemble cast of Jamie Burris, Olivia Eggleston, and RJ Solomon is absolutely amazing to watch here as you believe in both their familial bonds and deep-rooted woundedness. It would be difficult to call Grey Heart my absolute favorite here, though it's definitely one short film I simply have been unable to forget since watching it. 

The Burdens They Carry
Written and Directed by: Alyssa Andrews; Starring: Cory Kays, Adam Flowers, and Kyle Summers; Running Time: 12 Mins. 

The Burdens They Carry is a Narrative Category winner at the 2019 Indy Shorts International Film Festival, a recognition of absolutely top notch storytelling by Alyssa Andrews and the tremendous success of her ambitious filmmaking that centers itself within the genre of war and manages to pull it off despite the inherent difficulty of working on a low budget and within the world of short film. 

In the film, a troubled Vietnam War veteran struggles to overcome the burdens of his hidden past until, one day, he realizes that his only real solution may be to face his greatest fear. 

The Burdens They Carry is a deep and meaningful film, a film that wears its agenda on its sleeve and in its credits yet never lets that agenda overwhelm the story. Andrews is a gifted storyteller and her work here is a tremendous achievement. Kudos must also be given to the film's ensemble cast of Cory Kays, Adam Flowers, and Kyle Summers. 

Meeting at Half Past Five
Written and Directed by: Daria Litvichenko; Starring: Andrey Blokhin, Konstantin Litvichenko; Running Time: 4 Mins. Official IMDB 

This 4-minute Russian short written and directed by Daria Litvichenko is a rather mesmerizing film to watch, one of two animated shorts and one where the decision to make the film in black-and-white has helped turn it into a masterful, entertaining effort. While there's never been any doubt that the world is cruel and corrupt, on this particular evening Philip gets more proof of this very fact. Filmed in Russian with English subtitles, Meeting at Half Past Five features beautiful animation and a simple, effective story. It's easily unlike any of the other finalists this year, even the other animated short, and its effectiveness and uniqueness will make it a film that you remember for quite some time. 

Written and Directed by: Ejun Hong; Running Time: 3 Mins. 

In a mere three minutes, writer/director Ejun Hong pays loving tribute to a 92-year-old grandfather who, despite living with Alzheimer's, never stops his love and longing for the mother that he lost at three-years-old. This South Korea/Slovakia production is this collection's second animated short and it's produced with tender, emotionally resonant detail and richness of color and tone. It's an honest, natural film that leads nicely into the next short film in the collection. 

Written and Directed by: Tian Yi Shi, Tisya Sharma, Annabelle Richens; Starring: Catherine Shi, Lillian Zhou; Running Time: 8 Mins. 

The 8-minute short film Lunchbox is having its U.S. premiere at the 2019 Indy Shorts International Film Festival and there may not be a more appropriate venue for this delightful short film's premiere. In the film, Sunny is struggling to fit in at school due to the unconventional food she brings in her lunchbox everyday. It's food that is lovingly prepared each morning by her attentive mother, whose sensitivity and insight into her daughter's concerns are gently, lovingly addressed as Sunny learns that her culture should be embraced and not suppressed. 

The casting of Catherine Shi and Lillian Zhou is sheer perfection, the two believably portraying the mother and daughter in question. There's a warm affection between the two of them, a subtle chemistry that makes this wonderful story come beautifully to life. While the transition into cultural embrace and awareness is a tad abrupt, this is the kind of film that Heartland film audiences love and it should be equally embraced during its screening at Indy Shorts. 

INDY-viduals: Rising Above
Directed by: Adele Reich, Hope Stauffer; Featured Subjects: Shelly Henley, Jacob Henley; Running Time: 10 Mins. 

Winner of the Indiana Category among the High School Film Competition finalists, INDY-viduals: Rising Above is bound to be a familiar story for most moviegoers in the Central Indiana area as it centers around the wonderful Carmel, Indiana business No Label at the Table, a business venture started by the mother/son team of Jacob and Shelly Henley. Jacob, a young man living on the autism spectrum, was wrapping up his high school days and life beyond high school was filled with massive uncertainty. It was an uncertainty and fear that motivated Jacob's mother, Shelly, to work with Jacob to create an opportunity for a meaningful life once Jacob finished high school at age 22. Birthed out of Jacob's own stated desire to be a chef, the two created No Label at the Table, a bakery in Carmel that employs people on the autistic spectrum and and provides them with employment opportunities at market wages. 

Co-directed by Adele Reich and Hope Stauffer, INDY-viduals: Rising Above is a feel good doc that avoids that usual "inspiration porn" feeling. Interviewing Jacob along with other employees, the film is informative, inspired, and simply an awful lot of fun to watch. As Indiana moves more and more toward addressing the issue of under-employment of people with disabilities, INDY-viduals: Rising Above is a powerful reminder that with a little creativity and a lot of determination that workplaces can easily be made far more inclusive and be embraced by their communities. It's a lovely little film and definitely a deserving winner of the Indiana category prize. 

Directed by: Max Miesen, Max Mereminsky, Gabe Yung, Reed Martin, Riley Scott, and Noah Hecht; Written by: Max Miesen, Reed Martin; Featured Subjects: Joshua Golden, Randy Englekirk, Susan Golden, Jonathan Golden; Running Time: 11 Mins. 

Winner of the Documentary category prize during the 2019 High School Film Competition, Ascent centers around 18-year-old Joshua Golden, an 18-year-old rock climber diagnosed with autism who has far surpassed expectations while living with autism and dealing regularly with a wide variety of challenges, stereotypes, and obstacles. 

Ascent possesses a wonderfully triumphant spirit and is a beautifully photographed portrayal of one young man's vulnerabilities and determination to keep on charging through them. The people who surround him are a source of constant accountability and encouragement, but Ascent wisely keeps its focus on Joshua and on the rocks he's climbing and the ways in which he's ascending throughout his life. If you're not rooting for Joshua by the end of the film, check your pulse. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic