“Character separates the certain few from all the rest”
I don’t think I have the objectivity necessary to teach because I interpret everything I come into contact with through my own personal visceral and emotional filter. With film I’m all about whether it speaks to me on a deeper level than pure artifice; if it makes me feel something other than appreciation an the artist who created something I have no aspirations of ever trying to create. I saw it in college when a professor would strain himself at the front of the room to say something nice and constructive about a student’s artwork that simply didn’t deserve it. That compromise of personal reaction in lieu of a scholarly interpretation is beyond me.
As a result, I’m not quite sure what to say about Daniel Witkin’s short film Trouble because I find it difficult to reconcile the fact it is a completed work of art as well as a Senior Thesis project from Wesleyan University. Do I view with the same eyes as the ones that watch Citizen Kane or do I pretend to weigh positive and negative on some unmeasured scale set to amateur rather than professional? Witkin’s work isn’t bad, it’s just obviously a creation born from limited resources and lack of experience. This is the reason so many name directors denounce early experimentations or try hard to bury them in the dark. It’s also why cinephiles enjoy watching to see the beginnings of the genius to come.
Whether or not Witkin has the potential for a Hollywood career lies in the opinion of people on a much higher pay scale than myself so all I can say with certainty is that Trouble includes some very nice stretches of subtle humor and surreal situations. It’s setting of St. Sebastian’s Quiet Academy for Disreputable Youth possesses a whimsically handwritten sign straight out of a Wes Anderson flick as well as the strange capacity to house troubled boys who somehow see nothing wrong with a Christmas themed dance sans the opposite sex. Despite this desire to stay off-kilter, however, Witkin appears to still want to touch upon universal themes such as character in today’s youth while subverting them for survival.
The film’s lead Isaac (Bennett Kirschner) is a bullied teen trying to exist quietly and free from the abuse Greg (Max Carpenter) and his cronies enjoy dishing. He is lectured by the headmaster (Timothy J. Cox), told he is for all intents and purposes a kid of ill repute, and powerless to truly stand up for himself. Only the establishment’s nurse (Chelsea Marino) seems to share any semblance of compassion but even then it’s merely a backhanded warning to watch out. Isaac drifts through dramatic playacting (wonderfully “fake” acted) and chores biding his time with the notion he shouldn’t be there. Willing to risk reprimand by even hiding in a locksmith’s car trunk, he will stop at nothing if freedom’s in reach.
Trouble moves along with Isaac’s temper rising and the uncovering of fodder for the blackmail of his superiors. Hatching a devious plan to escape with the unwitting help of those against him, he actually finds himself at the cusp of victory solely because the “character” his teacher hopes to instill eludes him. It’s a fun progression with a few mild laughs helped by glimpses of nice cinematography and zany set pieces. Watching a slow pan of uniformly dressed boys grooving to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” is a brilliant bit of showmanship made better by a trio of bloodied bullies moving their hips afterwards. An inventive reprieve to an otherwise generic story, it’s also an effective flourish that was sure to linger in Witkin’s professor’s minds while grading.