Slamdance 2023 Short Films Reviews

One of the best parts of film festivals is the short films selected! These are five reviews of several short films I was able to catch at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.

Mela, directed by Kristian Mercado


Mela is the first film I watched at this year’s edition of the Slamdance Film Festival. I was honored to interview the film’s director Kristian Mercado for The Nerd Corps’ YouTube channel. Mela is an enticing short film from Mercado that gauges your attention as it works around its gripping story. In Mela, we follow a single mother who has aspirations to become a famous reggaeton dancer but must navigate her responsibilities of being a mother in the process. The film includes the insanely talented Mela Murder (The Florida Project). I fell in love with the thematic discussion of the difficulties of raising a human being and chasing your dreams. Kristian Mercado’s visual language within Mela is also easy to drool over as the neon paradise provides an enigmatic dreamscape. The film moves a bit too fast at times and I wish we had the time to slow down. I feel as if slowing down would help consume the situation at hand better. Yet, even with these minor flaws the short film still manages to captivate the audience. You will be able to find something to love from the music, cinematography, performances or the overall story of Mela.

Safe as Houses, directed by Mia Mullarkey


Mia Mullarkey’s Safe as Houses is a solid film filled with heart and heartbreak. The film is centered around a woman with down syndrome who befriends a little girl who has been having trouble as of late at home. As a troubled home starts to get revealed the friendship grows between Aggie and Lucy. Sadly, the neighborhood isn’t as open and accepting as Aggie, so things go south and the true colors of Aggie’s neighbors are shown. I found myself enjoying Safe as Houses but I could not get behind the pacing of the film. As much as the story is exciting and sticks, the flow of the story holds it back from being great. Mullarkey also chooses a great location to film as it really creates the atmosphere of a small tight-knit community. It’s essential to have that feeling especially when we reach our conclusion as it is juxtaposed with the lack of respect for their fellow neighbor, Aggie. You don’t see a lot of films with disabled actors in the mainstream. That is why Safe as Houses, even if it has its flaws is far more critical than what is holding it back. I loved the underlying themes of not being judgmental and providing a safe environment for everyone.  I definitely cannot wait to see what else Mia Mullarkey has to offer.

Lollygag, directed by Tij D’oyen


If you know me you know that the erotic is something that interests me a lot. Now, Tij D’oyen’s short film Lollygag is not a complete work of the erotic. The story does revolve around a voyeur who stares out the window at her next-door neighbor during a summer in her childhood. For a ten-minute short film, Lollygag wastes no time captivating its audience with various aspects. The pastel cinematography by Matthew Roveto was the first thing that grabbed my attention. You don’t move past this one location of a backyard but that’s not a limitation for Tij D’oyen’s storytelling as it provides an enticing backdrop for the movie’s events to unfold. The soft yet disturbing narration by Alex Sarrigeorgiou manages to keep you afloat while also getting under your skin. A mix of tight shots and natural lighting creates an atmosphere that is difficult to look away from. Tij D’oyen uses all of this to explore queer identity and voyeurism. The pace is really slow, especially for a ten-minute film, but that’s only a minor gripe about such a delightful watch. I never found myself looking away or losing interest in the narrative. I would love to see what else this promising director has to offer.

Mahogany Drive, directed by Jerah Milligan


Jerah Milligan’s Mahogany Drive is an expertly written short with topical discussions on race and the patriarchy. Milligan manages to include some genuinely humorous bits that remind me a lot of last year’s Sundance hit, Emergency. Jonathan Braylock, James III, and Jerah Milligan have some marvelous chemistry together as they try to uncover why the house they are staying in is killing white women. The tension is high in the film and Milligan manages to direct this swiftly and with ease. The film’s practical effects elevate the horror approach and never feel distracting from the overt comedic approach to the film. I genuinely enjoyed the film and felt that it was a unique approach to discussing the difficult conversations surrounding race relations. While it’s not the most stylized film since its cinematography is a very naturalistic approach it still has its attention-grabbing moments. Mahogany Drive makes the most of its thirteen-minute runtime as it never feels like it drags on or is rushing to its end. By the end of the film, I was laughing and enjoying my time with our characters. If you get the chance to watch this eventually I can promise that Jerah Milligan’s Mahogany Drive will not disappoint. Who knows maybe this can be made into a feature-length film. I know that I would love to see this idea be expanded upon!

The Sidewalk Artist, directed by Brandon Rivera and David Velez


Art will always be subjective and as much as it continues to be gatekeeper by those at the top of the art world, you’d be surprised at the amount of art found in your everyday life. The Sidewalk Artist is a testament to that statement. We’ve all seen cement before, and for those who have it in their properties, you know that it is pretty much well known to dip your hands in and leave your prints in it. David Velez and Brandon Rivera’s mockumentary slice of life is a tender exploration of genuine happiness. Manuel Portillo finds a way into the heart of the audience through the such beautifully patient direction. It’s always assumed that children are the ones who create such designs on sidewalks. Yet, Velez and Rivera remind us that art like this is therapeutic and is used to remember key moments in life. I appreciated the approach and fell in love with the film until it wrapped up. I hope these two continue to find success in their careers as storytellers. Congratulations to them are in order as The Sidewalk Artist won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance for the film.

HCAF22: ‘Women Talking’ Review

Women Talking carries an important and topical discussion but is held back by its lackluster pace and uneven structure.

Courtesy of United Arts Releasing


The final piece of my coverage on the 22nd Houston Cinema Arts Festival is about a film that has been highly spoken about for a while now around the awards circuit. Women Talking had its premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival and also had other film festivals screenings like Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival. It managed to garner a good amount of hype and because I did not have the chance to travel to New York for NYFF this year, I was excited to watch this film at HCAF this year. We also had part of the supporting cast in attendance for a post-screening Q&A moderated by one of the programmers of the Museum of Fine Arts at Houston. Yet, even with all the excitement built around this film, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking did nothing to move the needle for me.

Women Talking is based on the novel by Miriam Toews that is inspired by a real-life story of Mennonite women in Bolivia. The film’s script is written by Sarah Polley who also directs the film. Its cast includes names such as Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, and Frances McDormand (who also serves as a producer). The movie’s cinematography is provided by Luc Montpellier and its score is composed by none other than Hildur Guðnadóttir. Women Talking has been named one of the best films of 2022 by both the American Film Institute and the National Board of Review. Along with those accolades it has also been nominated for Golden Globes Awards, Critics Choice Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards,, and several people are awaiting news of possible Academy Awards nominations.

In Women Talking we follow a group of women living in a Mennonite community who have been physically and sexually assaulted, and are tasked with making the decision to stay or leave the colony forever. The film tackles a struggle of faith and examines the violent power struggle of structural misogyny. Women of all ages meet together to discuss democratically their reasons to stay or leave. As the final day approaches to make their decision, the women find themselves struggling to make a decision that benefits them. A fight against violence and their lack of freedom create an interesting concept that is lost on a lackluster execution.

Even though Women Talking has an interesting concept and great performances from Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, and Rooney Mara it’s held back by an uneven pace. I found myself to be really drawn to the first act but it never recovers from a pace that drags its feet until the credits roll. I loved Hildur Guðnadóttir but I felt that it did not match the visual language provided by the film’s color palette and cinematography. The script is fine and there are some really clever uses of dialogue that stand out but the biggest problem lies in its editing. The second act becomes too redundant and I feel with shaving off about around 10 to 15 minutes you’d have a better-structured narrative. While I did not like Women Talking you cannot deny its importance in the conversations had within the film. That’s why this will continue to live in the public whether or not it’s the best-made film or not.

Watch Women Talking in theaters as it continues its wide theatrical release.

HCAF22: ‘All The Beauty and The Bloodshed’ Review

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a carefully crafted documentary that highlights the life and activism of an incredible artist and human.

Courtesy of NEON


One of my favorite aspects of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival is the documentaries that they include in their program. Last year Luchadoras was one of my favorite films of that year, and even though it hasn’t been released yet, the film was one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. This year they screened the 2022 Venice International Film Festival’s Golden Lion winner, Lauren Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. As always most of the films are screened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. It is safe to say that not only is All the Beauty and the Bloodshed one of the best documentaries but films in general of last year.

Laura Poitras examines the life and activism of photographer/artist, Nan Goldin. Nan Goldin embarks on a fight against the Sackler family who are at the forefront of the opioid epidemic. The film aims to balance out by discussing Goldin’s life and her fight against the rising death toll of opioids. Poitras includes several of Goldin’s photographic works and archival footage of her life. The documentary tries to show off in several chapters how each part of her life has led to her biggest battle yet against the Sackler Family. Nan Goldin is trying her best to make sure that no museum or art exhibits continue to take money from them. She organizes protests like throwing massive amounts of prescription pill bottles into fountains inside the museums. Poitras also includes archival and present interviews with those who have suffered from the Opioid Epidemic. One of the most chilling scenes is one of Goldin and her protestors having a Zoom meeting with the Sackler family and unloading their experiences and frustrations against them.

For better or for worse, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed lays all of its cards on the table and even if it may not always work to its advantage, the film finds a way to stick with the audience until the credits roll. The film starts really strong as it puts you right into the belly of the beast with the first of many protests orchestrated by Nan Goldin’s Prescription Addiction Intervention Now advocacy group (P.A.I.N.). I enjoyed that we link her life and experiences coherently enough with her activist past and present. Yet, the biggest problem I have with the film is that it began to lose me in the second act. The photographs even though having their important purpose really do find a way of distracting the viewer and ultimately slowing down the pace. By the time we get to that eruptive third act you’re locked right back in, but it feels more like a relief that the film ended more than the catharsis one hopes for during the film. That could also be expected as the fight against the Opioid Epidemic continues even with these major victories. Nevertheless, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is impressive but its structure keeps from becoming greater than it is.

Watch All the Beauty and the Bloodshed in theaters nationwide as it continues its theatrical release.

HCAF22: ‘The Inspection’ Review

The Inspection is an impressive directorial debut that loses its steam but is held afloat by its important thematic discussion of family, sexuality, and moving on.

Courtesy of A24


For the second year in a row, I had the privilege of attending the 22nd Houston Cinema Arts Festival on behalf of The Nerd Corps as part of the accredited press. I loved attending last year and watching films such as Red Rocket and Luchadoras to name a few. It’s definitely hard to hold up this year’s festival to the last as we had a lot of great moments including getting to meet Sean Baker. Nevertheless, that is not to say that this wasn’t a good year for HCAF because the Houston Cinema Arts Society always manages to bring some gems to the Houston Metropolitan area! Opening night included Elegance Bratton’s The Inspection which was quite an underrated film from last year.

The Inspection is written and directed by Elegance Bratton. The film stars Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union, Bokeem Woodbine, and Raúl Castillo. The movie’s original score is composed by Animal Collective, and Bratton’s visual aesthetic is provided by the director of photography, Lachlan Milne. This is Elegance Bratton’s feature directorial debut and it is being distributed by A24. This film is special to Bratton as it is inspired by his real-life experiences of being homeless for a decade after his mother kicked him out of their home for being gay.

Elegance Bratton’s film takes a different approach though and showcases the journey of our protagonist Ellis French who joins the Marines after being kicked out by his mother, Ines. Ellis understands that life as an out gay black man will not be easy and the film showcases that notion as it provides obstacle after obstacle for Ellis French to handle. He develops feelings for Rosales and must deal with the toxicity of his fellow marines along with his commanding officer, Laws. Ellis is not the only one to overcome obstacles while in basic training, many of his fellow marines like Ismaili are falling under the pressure put on them. While all this is going on Ellis must also deal with the estranged relationship with his mother and her refusal to see her son as an out gay man.

I wasn’t completely a fan of The Inspection but I found myself really enticed by its visual language, and performances, as a directorial debut there is a lot of promise here for Elegance Bratton’s career. Jeremy Pope along with Gabrielle Union delivers one of last year’s best performances. Their chemistry is unmatched and they are undeniably the film’s standouts including Raúl Castillo. I was in love with the score provided by Animal Collective and felt that it matched the beautiful visual aesthetic provided by The Inspection’s rich lighting. Its story did not completely enthrall me and the pace held it down during the second act, but by the time we reached the concluding act, I was back on board with the film. There’s room for improvement but for his first feature film, Elegance Bratton provides a tense and tender look into a very real issue. The answers aren’t clear to Ellis and Inez’s relationship but sometimes it’s not always up to the son to put in all the effort. The thematic approach makes watching the film well worth the small number of flaws it has.

Watch The Inspection on video on demand through most rental services like Apple TV, Amazon, and YouTube.

NashFilm53: ‘Wannabe’ Review

Crafted with excellence and a pastel color palette, Wannabe, is a poignant look at the constraints on art placed by predators.

Courtesy of USC


The music industry much like the film industry is a space plagued by the predatory actions of some men with too much power on their hands. It’s a toxic environment that exists not only in the music industry but in a lot of aspects of the entertainment industry. Things are changing for the best but at times it feels like the progress is so slow that a lot of women continue to report misconduct in their work. Josie Andrews aims to explore that in her short film, Wannabe. A girl group of singers caught in the middle of slow traction is forced to the decision of working with the man who sexually assaulted one of their members or ignoring all that to chase their dreams of stardom. An important narrative unfolds itself through the use of tense storytelling and sharp cinematographic value.

Josie Andrews’ Wannabe is not an easy film to experience as it deals with a heavy trauma that leads our protagonists to a crossroads. Brilliantly directed by Andrews, the film never shies away from showcasing the inner and outer conflicts being experienced, coated in a rich visual style that highlights the glamour of the music industry inside the ugliness that surrounds it. Our protagonists are stuck making a decision that could change the trajectory of their careers. Josie Andrews and team masterfully craft a message beyond its runtime that even with the conclusion that’s made, the pain will continue to linger. I loved this film and hope for nothing but the best for the incredibly talented team that worked on this short.