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The Independent Critic

Madelyn McHugh, Ben McHugh, Kerri Romeo
Ben McHugh

 Madelyn McHugh Shines in "Riley"  
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Life underground is the new normal for Dutch (Ben McHugh) and his young daughter Riley (Madelyn McHugh). We meet them as the nocturnal scavengers have returned to their basement sanctuary, a daily game of "What's for dinner?" providing both a sense of ritual and relief in the bleakness of this disparate future. 

Things change when an unexpected visitor surprises them. 

It's fair to say that Riley soars on the strength of Madelyn McHugh's poignant, tender performance as the young girl who seems both wise beyond her years yet longing for something resembling actual childhood. She wants something else, though perhaps is unsure just exactly what that something else is. McHugh, daughter of co-star and writer/director Ben McHugh, proved her acting chops in Gregory and she's even better here. There are so many little touches brought to life here that I dare not speak of, though everything matters in this just shy of 14-minute short film from the words spoken to the sanctuary Dutch and Riley are calling home to the unspoken silences. Young Madelyn McHugh handles all of this so beautifully and gives a performance that should have Hollywood knocking on her door (or basement). 

There's also a palpable sense of love and connection, perhaps understandably so given the existing familial relationship, between Dutch and Riley and Ben McHugh himself also gives a stronger turn than his relatively brief appearance in McHugh's short film Gregory. One can easily understand how the two can manage to find light in such darkness. 

Riley is early in its festival run and has already picked up several awards from fests including the New York International Film Awards (Best Short Screenplay, Best Short, Best Actress), Miami Indie Film Awards (Best Director, Best Short), Flickers' Rhode Island International Film Festival (Semi-Finalist), and Filmmatic Short Screenplay Awards (Semi-Finalist). 

There's no doubt the awards will continue. 

Alice Millar's lensing for the film is exceptional in capturing the natural chemistry and intimacy between father and daughter and yet still the bleakness of this stark basement sanctuary. Original music by James Vader is sublime and immersive. 

Short films set in a dystopian future are a dime a dozen. I hardly go a month without seeing such a film, however, Riley is most certainly different and tells a story that deserves to be told. This material feels fresh and McHugh's script draws us in and holds onto us until the very end. 

There's so much to love about Riley and you'd be a fool to miss it if it arrives at a film festival near you. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic