There are two things that jump out at you during the 13:22 minutes of CAPTAIN, a leading contender in the Short Film Competition at this year’s Dances with Films Film Festival. First, is the exquisite cinematography of Emily Topper and second, although only on screen a scant few seconds, the oh-toooo-cute and adorable CAPTAIN. Both are images and qualities that stay with you after the film’s end.
A frustrated writer, to make ends meet, Steve has been relegated to the job of a dog-walker. Staring at a blank computer screen for endless hours, he gives new meaning to the term “writer’s block.” Mentally tormenting himself over the fact that he is 36 years old and written nothing while F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby” at age 29, you get the idea as to the extent of self-flagellation going on. Making matters worse, a few months earlier he was kicked out of a writing class because, as his instructor Carl put it, he wasn’t living up to his potential and was one of Carl’s greatest failures as a student. So imagine Steve’s surprise when he gets a call out of the blue from Carl and his wife, Trish, asking him to babysit their beloved little baby Chihuahua, CAPTAIN.
Trish is the epitome of the term “vacuous ditzy blonde.” Prattling on whenever she opens her mouth, she is beyond obsessive about CAPTAIN, not to mention insulting to Steve with little digs about his failures as a writer and as Carl’s student. With multiple medications, multiple food groupings and selected toys all lined up on the kitchen counter, plus a myriad of instructions (including singing a Tom Jones song to CAPTAIN), I was waiting to see Trish come down from the dancer’s pole ensconced in her living room to knit little garments for CAPTAIN. Carl, on the other hand, beyond bearing a strong resemblance to a bearded Jeff Daniels, is what one might imagine an old school frustrated actor turned writing teacher to be – semi-intoxicated with eyes half open, drink in one hand, dramatic speech patterns and grandiose arm movements flailing about with sloshing drink. Together, they make Steve more than appreciate his companionship and conversation with his dog-walking charges.
With the puppy-sitting deal in place and Steve confident in his upcoming duties, he heads home for the day. But later that night, a tearful, bedraggled looking Trish shows up at his house yelling, “You killed CAPTAIN.” Shocked and bewildered, Steve hadn’t even begun his puppy sitting as yet, how could he have killed CAPTAIN?
Nicole Stuart and Jack Sundmacher are triple threats, wearing hats of not only producers and writers, but also starring as Trish and Steve. Conceived as a short story by Sundmacher based on his own weekend of cat sitting for a teacher’s cat, it was Stuart’s idea to bring the story to life as a screenplay. Clearly incorporating her own life growing up in Las Vegas into the story (hence the dancer’s pole and Stuart’s exhibition of her pole mastery), Stuart’s ditziness, while engaging, gets annoying, but she fuels the lighter comedic element of the film which as a whole is a dark, yet entertaining comedy with a wickedly surprising edge. Sundmacher brings a palette of emotion to Steve exhibiting angst, frustration, flippancy, bewilderment, sorrow and mortification in the course of less than 15 minutes, much of which is only enhanced by some excellent camera work. Bjorn Johnson steps in as Carl. Former acting teacher and director to Stuart, their familiarity with each other off screen brings an ease and compatibility to their on screen relationship, with each complimenting the eccentric off-beat persona of the other.
But the real star of the film is CAPTAIN (aka Oro) – the most precious little pup to hit the big screen in a long time (in other words, move over Papi and Chloe, there’s a new top dog in Beverly Hills). Given the rumor that Sundmacher and Stuart are working on a feature length version of CAPTAIN which would undoubtedly include the very extended backstory given in the production notes of this film (but which I will not divulge to you now lest it spoil the feature), I can only hope that we see a lot more of CAPTAIN in the future. He just melts your heart.
As this is a short film, the “backstory” is minimal with everything occurring in the here and now, yet the script is well crafted so as to provide enough information necessary to understand the film completely – and leaves you wanting more.
Director Max Brady came on board just two days before shooting started. Clearly, he got up to speed in record time given the quality of the final product. Interesting camera work, superb cinematography that is crisp, clean and vivid complete the package.
O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN! The prize you seek should be won (with apologies to Walt Whitman). CAPTAIN, a “Must See Festival Film” at not only Dances With Films but every other festival in which it appears, is top dog.
Trish – Nicole Stuart
Steve – Jack Sundmacher
Carl – Bjorn Johnson
Directed by Max Brady. Written by Jack Sundmacher and Nicole Stuart.
CAPTAIN is showing at DWF on Saturday, June 6th at 12:30 PM at the Sunset Laemmle 5, 8000 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90046.