2016 Sundance Short Film Tour delivers mixed bag

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“Thunder Road,” the 13-minute short film written, directed and starring Jim Cummings, is one of the shorts shown Sunday in Austin at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jim Cummings

The 2016 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour came to the Austin Film Society on Sunday, but it wasn’t as consistently great as its prestigious nature hyped it up to be. 

The showing, which will travel throughout the United States this fall and winter, included a collection of eight selected shorts that premiered at Sundance in January. It begins with weak stories that don’t wrap up nicely, but it finishes with a moving send-off.

The first short is “Affections,” a peek into the life of a bubbly young woman who is unsatisfied with her love life and cheats on her boyfriend with a homeless man. The movie opens strong, focusing on her humorous attempts to vie for the vagrant’s attention, but it ultimately fizzles out with a dull ending after the woman finds her excursion futile. It drags a few minutes too long, and the woman’s attempts to seduce other men could’ve easily been cut.

Next is “Jungle,” a flat and uninspired piece about two Senegalese illegal purse vendors in New York City named Amadou and Yaya. Amadou desires a better sidewalk and works to raise the money to purchase it from another vendor. Unfortunately, Yaya beats him to it. “Jungle” doesn’t mine much drama out of the conflict, lingering more often on disorienting shots of the city and allowing the constant roar of car engines to nearly consume the dialogue. Thankfully, this piece is heavy on subtitles.

Following that is “Edmond,” one of the collection’s most affecting shorts. It’s a stop-motion animated feature that opens with a man, Edmond, dragging a rock by rope to a pier. Edmond has driven friends and lovers away with his cannibalistic urges, and the film unveils the events of his life in reverse, finishing its journey with him as he leaves his mother’s womb. “Edmond” has a dark and touching ending in which a man finds salvation in his rock companion — or is it damnation?

“Bacon and God’s Wrath” will pick up the mood after the emotional roller coaster that “Edmond” brings. It’s a quirky documentary about a 90-year old Jewish woman who is about to try bacon for the first time. The film is sweet and to-the-point, culminating in the woman’s realization that God has not punished her for eating pork.

“The Grandfather Drum” is another animated film, though this one looks like it is made from paper cutouts. While the animation is fresh, the story is familiar, documenting the destruction of Native American culture by Christian evangelists. Yet, the movie never packs the punch it should, plodding on through a weak beginning and maintaining too much emotional distance from viewers to connect with them.

Sixth in line is “The Procedure.” The shortest film of the bunch, it’s a bizarre tale in which a man is unexpectedly tranquilized and wakes up strapped to a table. The ceiling opens, and another man with his buttocks exposed is lowered down toward the screaming captive. The payoff is a tremendously funny scatological joke that succeeds because of its brazen immaturity. 

“Her Friend Adam” saddens the tone, examining how jealousy threatens to tear apart the relationship between a young woman and her insecure boyfriend. The titular Adam is the wedge between them — the woman claims he’s gay, but the boyfriend finds that hard to believe. This short is authentically acted and hard to watch, as it hurts to see the couple rip into each other. By the end, you’re left to wonder if they’ll rebound from their clash.

The collection concludes with “Thunder Road,” a 13-minute film shot in a single take during the funeral of a beloved mother. Her son, a police officer, gives an epic, heartfelt eulogy that is both tragic and funny. In the short’s brief duration, it explores the bond between mother and child, the sacrifices involved with parenthood and the pain of grief. “Thunder Road” is surely the best of the bunch, and an outstanding way to close the tour.