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The Independent Critic

 "Redefining Disability" Shorts Screen at Indy Shorts  
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The 2019 Indy Shorts International Film Festival once again hosts the winners of the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. The Easterseals Disability Film Challenge is a competition that gives people with and without disabilities the opportunity to collaborate to tell unique stories that showcase disability in its many forms. In addition to showcasing the film challenge's winners, the "Redefining Disability" cinematic showcase includes a handful of other films created by and about people with disabilities. The films screen on the fest's opening day, July 25th at 2:45pm in The Toby, and on the fest's closing day, Sunday, July 28th at 2:45pm in DeBoest Lecture Hall. Both screening rooms are inside Newfields!

The Vanished
Directors: Catriona Rubenis-Stevens and Rachel Handler; Writer: Kara Moulter; Starring: Rachel Handler, Melanie Waldman, Jaleesa Graham, Sofiya Cheyenne; Running Time: 5 Mins. 

Picking up the "Best Awareness Campaign" during the 2019 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, The Vanished is a creative, impactful short film that could easily be described as Inception meets Groundhog Day. In the film, Alice (Rachel Alana Handler) experiences deja vu as her friends begin to disappear and she must choose between constantly reliving the same nightmare or vanishing into the unknown. 

The Vanished is a quick and breezy lo sci-fi short with a fun performance by Handler and a meaningful script by Kara Moulter that gets its point across and lingers in your mind long after the closing credits have scrolled by. The Easterseals Disability Film Challenge shorts are made over the course of one weekend, no small task, but what the film lacks in high impact production values is made up for with its creative direction by Catriona Rubenis-Stevens and Handler along with a fine ensemble cast. 

Human Helper
Writer/Director: Shaina Ghuraya; Starring: Nicole Evans, Alora Kinley, Anthony Golden Jr., Shauna Turnmire, and Davy McCall; Running Time: 5 Mins. 

As Dr. Rachel Hubbert, Nicole Evans captured the Best Actor prize during the 2019 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge for her performance in the insightful, entertaining short film Human Helper, a film set in the near future when artificially intelligent robots known as "human helpers" are a regular part of life but, as we quickly find out, not particularly inclusive in their helpfulness. Evans's Dr. Hubbert works alongside her assistant, Tony (Anthony Golden), on a personal mission to make these "human helpers" not so darn ableist. 

Evans is clearly having a terrific time as the abundantly informed and immensely frustrated Dr. Hubbert, while Alora Kinley is an absolute hoot as her not so helpful human helper. This is the kind of film that likely rings with a lot more authenticity for those who have a disability, I know I certainly cringed, and in the short span of five minutes writer/director Shaina Ghuraya tells a story that makes you laugh with maybe just a little bit of guilt. The film challenge this year had a sci-fi focus as part of its challenge, a rather difficult genre to pull off convincingly on a low budget AND in one single weekend. However, Ghuraya does a terrific job here and a similarly terrific ensemble cast drives it all home. 

Director: Carl Hansen; Writer: Andrew T. Horne; Starring: Julian Arian, Danny Gomez, Scott Rosendall, and Shannon Diereix; Running Time: 6 Mins. 

I/O was one of my personal favorites from this year's 2019 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge and it's not remotely surprising that director Carl Hansen took home the Best Director prize in the growing, nationwide competition. Masterfully utilizing meaningful sci-fi to tell a richly human story, the film centers around a man's struggle to reveal to his girlfriend that he's been dating her through his robot. 

I/O is so beautifully shot that it's at times hard to believe it was made over the course of a weekend, though it's truly the film's top notch ensemble cast that helps to really sell Andrew T. Horne's poignant, honest story and Hansen's visually creative and intimate directorial effort. This is one of those films I could have watched over and over again. In fact, maybe I did. 

Parents, Inc.
Director: Harald Zwart; Writers: Emily Hopper, Mitch Bechtold, Veslemoey Zwart, Harald Zwart, Steven Shaw; Starring: Emily Hopper, Laqota Gunn, Paul Lasa, and Emily Behr; Running Time: 6 Mins.

Parents, Inc. took home the Best Film prize during the 2019 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, an amazing accomplishment during a really strong year that saw multiple top contenders and some truly wonderful films. Directed by Harald Zwart, Parents, Inc. tells the story of a girl living in a post-apocalyptic world who struggles with the new reality she lives in - being a teenager and having really unreasonable parents. 

This year's film challenge drew 71 films with over 200 individuals with disabilities either on-camera or behind the camera. As the push for disability representation in Hollywood grows, we can only hope to see this number continue to grow. Parents, Inc. tells a beautiful, personal story with all the power and poignancy you'd expect and hope for from a film where the lead is a newly minted teenager growing into her potential and her voice. With dramatic authenticity, Zwart nails the film's tone and this is yet another film you'll enjoy watching from beginning to end. 

Jack's Revenge
Writer/Director: Brian Swinehart; Starring: Dennis "Scooby" Willoughby, Jack Staudt, Pastor Don Solin, Ranson Karr, and Cody Ray Barrett; Running Time: 6 Mins. 

While Jack's Revenge didn't pick up a prize during the 2019 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, when you get a film involving the legend of Bigfoot you kinda sorta have to screen it. Don't you? In the film, Jack (Jack Staudt) wants to kill Bigfoot, but there's just one big thing in his way, the charismatic Scooby (Dennis "Scooby" Willoughby), who doesn't quite agree with Jack's plans and does what he can to put a halt to the whole thing. 

Jack's Revenge is an endearing little short, lightly humorous with a tremendous heart and among this year's "Redefining Disability" shorts this is certainly one that's going to leave a big ole' smile on your face. You can't help but like Willoughby and, well, this entire ensemble cast is pretty darn adorable from beginning to end. Definitely check it out. 

Love, Trails, and Dinosaurs
Director: Alex Oliver; Featured Subjects; Garan Moore, Theresa Moore; Running Time: 9 Mins.

Garan Moore is the first person with autism to hike every trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The delightful 9-minute short doc Love, Trails, and Dinosaurs, which is the first of four films in this collection not associated with the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, is a brief yet memorable accounting of Moore's experience. 

In case you're wondering, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has about 900 trails, ranging from super easy to downright challenging. The journey started after Garan began gaining weight to the point that a family visit to Dollywood ended after he was unable to successfully be strapped into one of the park's coasters. Determined to give her son a better quality of life, mother Theresa Moore began taking Garan out on a daily basis. Since then, it's become treasured time together and Garan has dropped 80 pounds through this regular, nature-centered exercise regimen that has become a regular part of his life. 

Love, Trails, and Dinosaurs is beautiully photographed, though if we're being honest it would be super hard to ruin the inherent beauty of the Smokies. The film's original music is ethereal and immersive, while Theresa Moore's love for her son shines through. While the film would benefit greatly from a bit more focus on Garan himself, the mostly non-verbal young man communicates greatly as he enthusiastically winds his way through trail after trail with seemingly endless enthusiasm. 

Lucy in the Sky
Director: Bertha Bay-Sa Pan; Writer: Jen Rudin; Starring: Whoopi Goldberg, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Catherine Curtin, Kelly Hu, and Quinn McColgan; Running Time: 14 Mins. 

14-year-old Lucy Katz (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is living with autism and adjusting to mainstream high school when she's suddenly faced with cataclysmic change after she and her sister become the subject of a genetic research study. Lucy in the Sky features one of the 2019 Indy Shorts International Film Festival's celeb appearances with Whoopi Goldberg on hand as Mrs. Lewis. 

Lucy in the Sky is easily one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of the "Redefining Disability" block of films at Indy Shorts this year. In the film, Lucy's awkward transition to high school is complicated by her high-stress family environment including mom Ellen (Catherine Curtin), dad Dan (Danny Burstein), brother Noah (Adrian Raio), and twin sister Rachel (Quinn McColgan), the latter whose primary high school objective seems to be dissociating herself from her frequently peculiar sister. 

Lucy in the Sky is an absolute gem of a film and it completely soars on the strength of Colletti's vulnerable, winning performance as the young girl with way more promise and potential than anyone recognizes. Her father thinks she lacks "the whole package," but there's a creative spark burning inside Lucy and it comes to life when a wise, insightful drama teacher (Goldberg) is paying attention and helps to bring it to life. Colletti is also in this year's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and has also been seen in Wildlife, Skin, and 2014's Annie. 

Based on writer Jen Rudin's TV pilot script, Lucy in the Sky has picked up the Sloan Foundation Writing Award (2016) and Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation Award, strong indicators of its abundant quality and entertainment value. Director Bertha Bay-Sa Pan does terrific work here creating a meaningful and engaging story without resorting to stereotypes. In addition to Colletti's standout performance, Goldberg is absolutely wonderful here along with the uncomfortably honest Catherine Curtin, the immensely natural Quinn McColgan, and Kelly Hu as a school doctor with a role that I'll leave undefined so you can watch it for yourself. Broadway star Danny Burstein is strong as always. 

Rick Carmona's lensing for the film is vivid and emotionally resonant, while Jason Binnick's original music for the film helps maintain the film's emotional core and relentless spirit. 

Love & Loss
Writer/Director: Yiying Li; Featured Subjects: Nicole Evans, Ryan Evans, Karen Crespo; Running Time: 22 Mins.

In Yiying Li's 22-minute short doc Love & Loss, two women at different places in their journey of learning to deal with physical and emotional challenges share their stories in ways that are intelligent, honest, insightful, and surprisingly vulnerable. Nicole has had the past 30 years to cope with and learn to embrace her disability, while Karen has had to deal with both the physical and emotional trauma almost overnight. In this moving short film, both women are taking steps to find love in their lives. 

Li picked up a Student Academy Award in 2018 for Love & Loss with a Silver Medical, 2nd Place prize. The film is beautifully photographed and portrays both woman for the vibrant and alive women that they are. It's refreshingly devoid of the usual stereotypes and "suffering" angle that is so common in cinematic portrayals of love and disability, while the two women capture your attention and never let it go throughout the course of the film's quick, too short 22-minute running time. These are two young women you could spend much longer with and the film itself is so intelligent and insightful that you can't help but keep thinking long after the closing credits have rolled. This would be a terrific film to be shown in any number of high school and college classes, its engaging spirit and open mind ideal for initiating discussions around disability, relationships, sexuality and much more. 

1500 Miles
Director: Chris Duncan; Featured Subjects: Nicole Ver Kuilen, Natalie Harold, Jan Harley, Kathleen Wang; Running Time: 17 Mins. 

Nicole Ver Kuilen is an amputee athlete who challenges herself to swim, bike, and run from Seattle to San Diego. There's no question that she herself has the endurance and passion to make it to the end. Will her prosthetic?

This last film in the "Redefining Disability" block of films at the 2019 Indy Shorts International Film Fest is an invigorating way to close out the block with the contagious, spirited Ver Kuilen being the only reason you'll need to watch this enjoyable 17-minute short film. As a paraplegic/double amputee myself who has done my fair share of endurance events, I found myself absolutely engaged with 1500 Miles and completely invested in the adventures of this remarkable, inspiring athlete. The film is beautifully shot and paced and should be yet another film that completely captures the hearts and minds of Indy Shorts audiences. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic