There's an undeniable tension that radiates throughout Sam Gostnell's indie dramatic short Sheep Hills. It's a familiar tension. It's the kind of tension that arises from the soul when you encounter certain people who just exude a sort of impending sense of doom.
It's as if you know that something isn't right but you feel helpless to stop it.
Set for a world premiere at Hollywood Shorts Fest on May 7th, Sheep Hills circles around two teenage outsiders, Jack (Eric Evans) and Todd (Brendan Shannon). I can't deny that I found myself thinking about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the Columbine tragedy, throughout Sheep Hills but that is not the direction this riveting short goes and, in fact, the drama contained within the film is surprisingly low-key.
In Sheep Hills, this is simply life. There's no real drama to it.
Both young men, though they're still really boys, are growing up with different yet remarkably similar single fathers (Brandon Irons and Jeff Doba, respectively) in working class cookie-cutter dwellings where machismo is demanded and toxic masculinity practically drips from the walls.
This feels like trouble. If not now? Sometime.
Sheep Hills is a deceptively beautiful film to behold. I say deceptive because the beauty here is hard to come by, though the lensing by award-winning and Grammy-nominated cinematographer Robert Benavides is absolutely mesmerizing. Benavides's lens is a fifth character here that constantly demands we pay attention and understand this environment.
Jack Paal's story is a familiar one, if not in cinema then in news headlines on a nearly daily basis. While the particulars will go undescribed here, suffice to say that Sheep Hills serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of toxic masculinity and gun violence. While the message here is obvious, Paal's story also understands the seductiveness of toxic masculinity and the sense of brotherhood it provides for those who lack other forms of human connection. Produced by Dark Time Entertainment, Sheep Hills never lets us forget that as dysfunctional as these four people are they are, in fact, still people.
That's the tragedy, really. And that's a tragedy that ripples.
As a longtime activist in the area of violence prevention, specifically with children and youth, I found Sheep Hills a mesmerizing film to watch and an impossible film to forget. The film's ensemble is exceptional. Brendan Shannon is the more aggressive of our two teenage outsiders, though his toxic masculinity is largely unformed and curious. He's filled with bottled-up emotions and just looking for a place and a way to express it. On the flip side, there's a gentler quality about Eric Evans, an oft-bullied soul who seems to be trying to resist the faux masculinity in which he's being raised. He's easily influenced and perhaps just as combustible as his near constant companion.
It is Brendan's father, scarily played by Jeff Doba, who is the volatile of the two with a style of parenting that is more taunting than teaching. While in some ways Brandon Irons's Brice projects some degree of responsibility, he's seemingly blind to the ways in which his own toxicity sabotages any attempt at responsible parenting.
Brought vividly to life and telling an important story, Sheep Hills is an important film with a message relevant to our times and meaningful to our lives. Behind a strong ensemble cast and immersive lensing, Sheep Hills deserves a lengthy, rewarding festival run.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic