As part of its continuing coverage of the 20th annual deadCenter Film Festival, Oklahoma City Free Press will feature three films from the festival each day: a feature-length narrative film, a short film and a documentary.
Today’s roundup focuses on director Jacob Burns’ Shifter, Erica Tremblay’s Big Chief, and Dan Wayne’s oddball taxidermy documentary Big Fur.
by George Lang, Free Press film critic
Shifter. Like the zombie genre, the rules and effects of time travel are entirely subjective, but few depictions of chronological long jumping take into account the physical distress that comes with disintegrating and reintegrating in another time. So it comes as a surprise that Jacob Burns’ Shifter explores the notion that time travel is straight painful.
Nicole Fancher plays Theresa, a socially awkward 20-something who is just coming off a painful stretch taking care of her father Owen (deadCenter MVP Ben Hall) as he dies a slow death from Alzheimer’s disease. During his life, Owen Chaney was kind of a Doc Brown type with a barn full of steampunk experiments, and Theresa quickly learns that the time travel device her father made out of oil drums actually works.
At first, the time machine enables Theresa to solve problems and dispense justice, like she does at work and with the old classmate (Stephen Goodman) who reveals himself to be an unalloyed douchebag on a date in the Plaza District. But Theresa quickly discovers that each trip takes a significant physical toll, messing with her gene structure and causing severe gastrointestinal distress when she is just starting to make a connection with Oklahoma City University student Blake (Ashley Mandanas).
Burns accomplishes a lot with a modest budget, and Fancher does much of the heavy lifting in Shifter — she is in nearly every frame and delivers an engaging and relatable performance throughout. Making good use of local settings to tell a tale of social and time displacement, Shifter makes the point that moving through history can create dangerous consequences beyond the “butterfly effect.”
The best short films usually play like they could be just a brief view into the lives of others, that the characters continue through their lives before and after credits in this short but impactful view into their lives.
Writer-director Erica Tremblay achieves this narrative trick with Little Chief, 12 minutes in the lives of teacher Sharon (Lily Gladstone, Showtime’s Billions) and her student Bear (Julian Ballentyne).
Set in and around Wyandotte’s Turkey Ford Public School, Little Chief follows Sharon through her morning ritual as she gathers toilet paper and soap from a nearby casino so that her students will be well supplied that day. Of all her students, Bear seems the most lost and in need of her tough but kind guidance.
Co-produced by Sterlin Harjo, Little Chief feels real at every level, and Tremblay, who is currently studying her Seneca and Cayuga languages at the Six Nations reservation in Canada, could turn this short film into a longer exploration of these rural characters. Even if that never happens, Little Chief feels true for its short running time and viewers will want more of Sharon and Bear’s story.
Big Fur. Most people think of taxidermy as a semi-ghoulish art form consisting of skinning a dead animal, then stuffing and posing it for posterity. But in Big Fur, world champion taxidermist Ken Walker is thinking bigger: he will taxidermy Sasquatch.
Dan Wayne’s documentary delves into a curious and specific subgenre of taxidermy that focuses on mythical creatures, the kind of strange pursuit that could generate a lifelike unicorn for the family den. But Walker does not view Sasquatch as a mythical creature. He believes he saw one in one of the emptier provinces of western Canada, and he stores what he just knows is bigfoot feces in a Ziploc bag in his freezer.
His efforts to create a lifelike Sasquatch involve a lot of styrofoam and wild bovine hair, but Walker is a serious artist in what is widely considered a not-so-serious medium. His work is nonpareil, achieving the kind of natural verisimilitude that feels like it could reach out and bite someone.
Creating a furry bigfoot statue is not even the strangest element of Big Fur. For instance, Walker is so good at imitating Roy Orbison that he once did it semi-professionally, and the documentary follows the provincial Michaelangelo as his marriage ends amid some fairly queasy adultery. It is all so much, but this is a community that treats the famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin footage of Sasquatch as proof of life, so Big Fur delivers a bear hug to these self-aware weirdos.
The 20th annual deadCenter Film Festival can be experienced piecemeal or through a full-access plan. Patrons can enjoy one film for $10 or get the $100 festival pass. Donor level passes are $2,500. Visit deadcenterfilm.org
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