The Bright Wall/Dark Room Short Film Spotlight is a regular feature celebrating independent short films by emerging filmmakers. To submit a film for consideration, visit our profile at FilmFreeway.
“It is time that writers,” Anton Chekhov wrote in 1888, “especially those who are artists, recognize that there is no making out anything in this world.”
It’s this artistic mandate, this gauntlet thrown at the feet of anyone seeking to tell truthful stories, that inspired Scottish writer William Boyd in 2004 to coin “Chekhovian” as the classification by which to describe so many of the most memorable and effective works of short fiction. Chekhovian stories, Boyd tells us, “look at life in all its banality and all its tragic comedy and refuse to make a judgment,” but rather aim to “record the actions of human beings as they are and to leave them to speak for themselves (insofar as they can) without manipulation, censure or praise.”
It may seem counterintuitive that the words of a Russian writer who died over a century ago were left echoing in my mind at the end of a story about two off-brand party princesses getting high on an unexpectedly free afternoon. And yet the Chekhovian ideal is embodied perfectly by Too Long at the Fair, a story that surveys the vast spectrum of human experience—from frustration to joy, hedonism to shame, regret to awestruck nostalgia—and synthesizes the whole mess into just under 15 minutes of precise and specific storytelling. Writer/director/stars Jessie Barr and Lena Hudson observe their imagined world with an eye that eschews moralizing in favor of engendering a deep empathy for this small handful of flawed people who haven’t managed—for reasons both within and beyond their control—to achieve the goals on which they’ve staked their happiness.
Too Long at the Fair unfolds as a series of inverted expectations. While the opening moments seem poised for acidic satire of bougie suburban LA—a reliably amusing but nonetheless familiar subgenre in 2019—the story immediately tacks towards a slow accumulation of melancholy, all of it culminating in an epilogue that’s deceptively simple while carrying the weight of a lifetime’s minor disappointments. Each twist is surprising in the moment yet feels inevitable in retrospect, quite possibly the most satisfying type of filmgoing experience, and one the triple-threat creators pull off with apparent ease (which, at least in this writer’s estimation, tends to belie a good deal of hard work).
The story’s head fake masterstroke comes in the form of a climactic dilemma facing protagonists Charlie (Barr) and Val (Hudson)—the viewer is primed to suspect that new acquaintance Lee (Chris Messina) is laying the groundwork for a three-way, but instead, Lee reveals the unexpected specificity of his true deepest sexual desire, a notion so startlingly unusual that it’s tempting to rewind and make sure you’ve heard it correctly. This urge is so all-consuming for Lee that he’s willing to throw away both a surprisingly profound new connection and a huge sum of money just to achieve a moment of animalistic satisfaction.
It’s these small inflection points in an average life that Too Long at the Fair identifies and bears down upon. From something as deliberately considered as a divorce to something as impulsive and reckless as a sexual proposition, we can never be sure of the consequences we’re inviting, and Barr and Hudson treat the full spectrum of forks in life’s road with equal weight, recognizing how even the most casual choice can set us on a path that we’re helpless to step off of.
William Boyd argues that short stories are more like lyric poems, small treasures that prize emotional urges for which the longform story’s mandate of narrative satisfaction often doesn’t leave time. It’s this poetic element that lends the best short stories a sense of unshakable, echoing ambiguity. In their concision, short works can speak to us in ways that are unfamiliar, even alien, to our usual modes of processing stories. With our usual narrative receptors subverted, we’re able to access something deeper, something emotional that can’t be touched by traditional analytic vocabulary. These effects, so difficult to intellectualize and verbalize, can be unnerving, but more often they leave a lingering feeling of grace, the sense that something extraordinary has been made available for just a moment through the alchemy of fiction.
And as the credits for Too Long at the Fair roll, Val and Charlie dancing in the surf with a catharsis that’s as profound as it is difficult to articulate, it’s hard not to share that feeling. For just a moment, for the characters and the viewer, the sky has opened.