Writer/director Marissa Vonn lived for four years in my home state of Indiana, leaving the area only recently for work, yet I can't help but feel like there's a little bit of Indiana in the bones of her Iowa-set short film Knee High, an involving and wonderfully engaging short film about Calvin Melbourne (Michael Ridley), a cattle farmer struggling to keep hold of the reins of the family farm while fulfilling his responsibilities as a young parent to a son, Avery (Ben Bergthold), who idolizes him.
While some may experience Knee High as a touch too paint-by-numbers, the truth is it's precisely that ordinariness that gives the film its impact. This very type of scenario is played out over and over again in rural communities across America, hard-working Americans struggling to balance the required work of life with the friends and family who make it all worthwhile.
Vonn clearly "gets" it, she understands rural America and she brings intelligence, insight and sensitivity to everything that unfolds in a world where making a living requires dawn-to-dusk hard labor, there's always someone or some behemoth organization trying to exploit that hard work, and far too often the people around you suffer as you're merely trying to survive.
While this could easily be a universal film, Knee High is a charmingly personal one.
It would be nearly impossible to deny that young Ben Bergthold steals the show here with a performance that aches with simple honest and heartbreaking vulnerability. He's a young boy who simply wants to be like his dad even when his dad isn't really being much of a dad. As the film's storyline shifts about 2/3 of the way through the film, Bergthold's entire being just sort of lights up. It's an indicator, perhaps, that Bergthold isn't just being Bergthold. He's acting and he's acting incredibly well.
This isn't to say the rest of the cast is weak. In fact, the opposite is true. Michael Ridley's performance as Calvin is beautifully nuanced. You understand exactly why young Avery idolizes his dad. Despite his ever increasing list of parental failures, it's always crystal clear that Calvin is trying, and trying hard, to do the right thing and make the right choices despite the pressure of his parents, played with rural America steely resolve by Patty Dunning and Arlen Daleske, who have both high expectations about the farm they will one day hand over and quiet parental insights and nudges that you can literally feel guiding Calvin toward the balance he needs to attain.
Emily Solo, in only her second short film, is also a gem as Kelsey, the obvious ex who has obviously grown tired of having to pick up the pieces when Calvin disappoints his son yet again.
Lensing by Bruce Bales is quiet yet sublime, perfectly capturing the beauty and wonder of rural life yet also capturing the everyday intimacies of life in a small town where everyone knows everything and everyone else. You could easily turn down the volume on Knee High and still really just enjoy watching Bales's lens move from place to place, person to person.
The recently completed Knee High is, quite simply, an engaging and enjoyable short film that captures a part of American life that's not often paid attention to cinema. It's a quiet film that says a lot, a gently paced film that tells its story incredibly well. Ridley and Bergthold make for a believable father/son duo and you're rooting for them from beginning to end. In the early stages of its indie fest run, Knee High will unquestionably play incredibly well in the heartland but it's such a distinct experience it's hard to imagine that indie fests nationwide won't gravitate toward its relatable, ultimately hopeful message.
For more information on Knee High, check out the film's Facebook page linked to in the credits.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic