David Patrick Lowery’s new film—and first feature—St. Nick was showcased at the shorts film festival Rawstock 5 at the end of July. Having liked all of Lowery’s earlier work that I had seen, I didn’t want to miss it, or the rare chance to meet the film maker in person.
My anticipation was not misplaced. St. Nick is a constant adventure in light, shape, texture, and color. There’s narrative, too, to be sure. But it emerges only after the film and its central mystery have hooked you through images and episodes that tickle your sense of wonder and tease your curiosity.
How did these two kids get to where they are? How far are they from home? Why are they on their own? Lowery lets these questions hang in the back of his film. His interest lies not in their back story or motivation but in their resourcefulness, their sense of adventure, the enthusiasm with which they embrace the world. In a word, their kid-ness.
St. Nick at times evokes Forbidden Games in its steadfast refusal to romanticize the minds and emotions of children, and more frequently Badlands in its Malick-like gaze at a natural world that alternately reaffirms and compels human behavior. The film insists on freeing its depiction of children from the context of the adult world. Indeed, for nearly the first half hour the only human beings in the film are this adolescent boy and his little sister, there’s virtually no sign of human presence or activity, and precious little dialogue. It is all wonder and wanderlust, exploration and discovery, adventure and invention, and the secret pride of the children at seeing to their own needs.
This decontextualization of children reads a little like Let the Right One In in reverse: Where that film involved a gradual breaking free from the adult world, St. Nick begins after the break, celebrating the freedom until its spare narrative emerges as a gradual but relentless pulling of the children back into the world from which they have had all too brief respite. Even then, the film never becomes simply a story, never patronizes its characters by explaining or justifying them (let alone praising or condemning them).
St. Nick—named, it turns out, for the patron saint of children, one of many incidental points that isn’t explained in the film because it doesn’t really matter—is a consummate, beautifully realized mystery of a film, filled with the joy of film making, the adventure to of taking time to see how things look and work and affect those who perceive them—in short, a child’s sense of the magic in the world.
Some Analog Lines, a smart and visually rich meditation on carpentry, design, music, mathematics, and, of course, film.
Eastbound, the best of a handful of music videos directed by Lowery.
A Catalog of Anticipations (the full “triptych” version), an ambitious three-movement short film exploring themes and images similar to those in St. Nick.
Rawstock, I discovered, is an uneven proposition. This year’s installment featured some, not all, of the previously announced films, and a few that weren’t scheduled, and was plagued by technical difficulties that delayed the program by more than an hour. The live-on-stage efforts to keep the program moving were more annoying than distracting. The program itself featured one brilliant film, three pretty good ones, and a handful of amateurish entries that were less films than over-extensions of adolescent sight gags and one-liners that didn’t need the film medium in the first place.
Besides St. Nick, the films worth recommending are: Safe Passage, Shawn Telford’s 2009 SIFF Fly-Film entry, a disciplined and eerie black and white short that manages to surprise, haunt, and redefine life and death in a one-reel running time; A Love Story in Stop Motion, a smart and endearing spin through three generations worth of love, by Portuguese film maker Carlos Loscano; and Tidy Monster, another stop-mo animation film with a distinctly and disturbingly different tone, by British film maker Tim Marchant.