Fantastic Fest, like most gatherings, is different this year. Instead of congregating at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar here in Austin, people are viewing this year’s offerings at home and chatting about them online. (The drinking that takes place during normal festival years appears to be about the same, anecdotally.)
But there are some aspects of the festival that this year’s attendees aren’t missing out on: Drafthouse preshow material, classic warnings about not talking/texting/arriving late and the programming itself, which is as impressive as ever. I started my 2020 Fantastic Fest journey with the “Fantastic Shorts” program on Friday evening, and I’ll tell you about the seven shorts that kicked off my fest this weekend. (Side note: I was pleasantly surprised to see not one but two familiar faces from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” in this lineup!)
In “Blocks,” a stay-at-home mom of two (Claire Coffee) mysteriously begins throwing up — you guessed it — Lego blocks. She has no idea why this is happening, and she isn’t sure what to do with the toys either. Throughout the film we see her hiding her ailment from her friends, her husband and even her kids. But by the end she realizes that, more than anything, these blocks are offering her an opportunity for some alone time and personal space from everyone and everything else in life. Bridget Moloney wrote and directed this lighthearted look at what it means to be a mom (even if you aren’t throwing up little pieces of plastic).
This short opens up with a weird, goofy, steamy fantasy scene between two girls who are working the night shift together at a fast food restaurant called Woody’s. You see, Kristina (Allie McCarthy) has feelings for Jacqui (Danielle Kay) but hasn’t yet let on; the two are simply friends and coworkers. Their uneventful night at work is interrupted by a belligerently drunk guy (Scott Shilstone) who isn’t happy that they won’t let him into the restaurant. When they think he’s left, Kristina finds out that Jacqui might be leaving Woody’s, so she confesses her feelings in an awkward way. But the drunk guy eventually returns, and things get a lot more wild than anyone making minimum wage signed up for. Writer/director David Janove’s short is violent, with impressive special effects. It has a touching, if silly, ending that really cements what friendship can be, even in a worst-case scenario.
Co-directors Tuixén Benet and Marc Martínez Jordán created a funny and eye-opening short film with “Solution for Sadness.” The Spanish-language short opens with our protagonist, Tuixén (Tuixén Benet), showing the viewers things that she has — then revealing that an intangible thing she has is sadness that won’t go away. Her neighbors, her poetry teacher and a close friend are all fed up with how sad she is and how often she cries. But one day a bag labeled “Solution for Sadness” shows up in her yard, and she puts on the gorilla mask that’s inside. She doesn’t feel better, but the people in her life are treating her very differently. This one is sort of a mystery, and the reveal is more of a moral than anything. To paraphrase a line from the movie: It doesn’t matter what you want; it just matters what society can give you.
This is where the tone of the shorts lineup changed. Even when something gross or violent happened in previous shorts, there was still an overall lighthearted tone. But writer/director Kantú Lentz created a story that is mostly serious and dark instead. “Jack and Jo Don’t Want to Die” takes place in a world where something similar to cryogenics is real, and you can be “suspended” for a time (and a price), then re-animated at a later date. Jack (Justin Kirk) is a man working in the suspension/re-animation facility who is choosing to suspend himself so he doesn’t have to live with heartbreak. Jo (Olivia Edward) is a terminally ill girl whom Jack re-animates because her funds for suspension have run out following her mom’s untimely death. Throughout the 20-minute run, the unlikely pair come to see each other’s points of view about life and death, and Jack is able to help them both with a single decision.
One of the first things that made this short stand out was its opening claim that it’s based on a true story. In writer/director Farbod Ardebili’s film, we follow Shima (Mohadeseh Kharaman), a young woman living in Tehran who carries a secret. She is the frontwoman for a metal band called Bride of Death; a metal band is bad enough in Iran, but a woman leading it is even worse. Her bandmate Farzad (Babak Kamangir) comes up with a plan for them to get arrested by throwing an underground concert so that they can seek asylum elsewhere upon release, free to make their music publicly. Shima doesn’t like the plan, but after a man violently confronts her deaf daughter Sherin (Sarina Amiri) about her hijab, Shima agrees to the plan so that she can provide them with a better life elsewhere. There’s a fight between Sherin and Shima, and things don’t go as they should at the concert. Like the previous short, the mother and daughter eventually learn to see each other’s points of view, which makes for a bittersweet ending.
KD Davila, who directed this short and co-wrote it with Omer Levin Menekse, created something truly memorable with “Please Hold.” Mateo (Erick Lopez) is rushing to a bus stop in a future where nearly everything is controlled by bots and drones. Then, he’s stopped by a police drone and forced to handcuff himself. He ends up in jail, though he knows he committed no crime. Everything is automated, and he has no chance to talk to a human about why all of this is happening. To make matters worse, he can’t afford a lawyer and accidentally drains his bank account trying to call the LAPD. It’s tragic to the point of being funny, including the MS Word Clippy-esque public defender cartoon on the screen in his cell. He eventually begins knitting as part of a prison program called “Handmade,” which earns him pennies at a time. Long story short, he gets out of his predicament, but with no job and no place to live upon exit. His only option seems to be a role with “Handmade” once again. This is a scathing indictment of both our reliance on technology and the prison-industrial complex as a whole.
The “Fantastic Shorts” program closed out on Friday night with writer/director Phil Chernyak’s surreal blast from the past. In this short, Pam (Emily Cass McDonnell) is living in a town with terrible air quality and people she doesn’t like. As she flips through a McCall’s magazine, she sees an ad for Florida. All of a sudden, the man from the ad (Danny Burstein) appears and whisks her away to a virtual tour of the state in the hopes of convincing her to move there. This has a lot of late ’80s or early ’90s sitcom vibes; you’ll love it if you’re a fan of Adult Swim videos from Eric Andre or Tim and Eric. This short is definitely more off-the-wall and goofy than preceding ones, and it even culminates in Pam and the tour guide singing a duet about Florida. It definitely ended the program on a lighter note.
As you can tell, there’s a wide variety of genre programming available at this year’s Fantastic Fest, from comedy to mystery to science fiction.
Originally hailing from Pennsylvania, Jackie has called Austin home since choosing to attend the University of Texas, where she graduated with a degree in multimedia journalism. She loves spending time with her dogs, writing about pop culture in all its forms and spending time with friends – eating, drinking and doing trivia.