In 2006, when Simon Ellis’s short film Soft started its highly successful festival run, it quickly grabbed critical plaudits, notching up some 38 prizes including the International Jury Prize at Sundance and Best Short Film at the BIFAs. It remains a favourite among programmers and shorts filmmakers. Its strength comes from Ellis’s ability to immerse the viewer in an unnervingly hostile situation and implicitly ask piercing questions of his audience: in a sudden violent situation, what is the right course of action? Are you tough or are you soft?
The 12th London Short Film Festival runs 9-18 January 2015 at the ICA, Hackney Picturehouse and Oval Space.
A Simon Ellis retrospective, Short ‘Ting, with Q&A is at the ICA on Wednesday 14.
Jonny Phillips plays Iain, a fortysomething dad just back from the office, who irritates a gang of rowdy teenagers when he pops to the corner shop to buy milk. The teens follow him home and vandalise his car. Scott, Iain’s teenage son, has been assaulted earlier that day. When the gang throws stones at their front window, he identifies the ringleader as his assailant (Michael Socha, in a role listed in the credits simply as ASBO). With mum away, Iain and Scott (a compelling Matthew O’Shea) sit watching their teenage tormentors, wondering how to react.
The set up is ideal for a short film. The story is simple and the situation clear but the predicament faced by Iain and Scott is agonising. Iain, shaken up by the encounter at the shop, is confused and nervous. Scott looks to his father for his familiar gentle authority but it’s not there; ASBO’s assault has knocked Iain out of his comfortable middle-manager world into the uneven environment of the adolescent bullies.
Ellis illustrates the shift in camera, contrasting widescreen vistas of the leafy suburban location in which we first see Iain with the cramped mobile-phone images which capture his corner-shop slapping. The teenage gang’s pixilated viewpoint taps into our moral panics about phone bullying.
Soft is contemporary drama, but has the trappings of the western. With its sudden violence, brute antagonists and siege-like situation it resonates with dilemmas from the likes of Shane, High Noon and Rio Bravo. Eventually Iain is forced to face the tormentors outside his house, his masculinity and the respect of his son at stake. His parental words of advice – to avoid fights but not to be pushed around – are exposed as contradictory platitudes. When Scott asks “Are you scared, dad?”, Iain has no idea how to respond. To admit fear, to acknowledge his cowardice, is to admit to Scott the limits of his parental authority.
Back in 2006, my sympathies were with Scott, feeling his pain and shame as his false idol, the father he looks up to, fails him in the moment of crisis. On later viewings, it’s his dad’s predicament that gets my sympathy. As Iain, Jonny Phillips is paralysed by fear as he processes the likely consequences of whatever action he takes – violent reprisals, the example set to his son, how to reassert his undermined authority – prolonging the agony of ASBO’s taunts.
Why doesn’t he call the police? In this anxious moment, Iain doesn’t do anything, his fear, his softness, rendering him useless. Scott, understanding this, is forced to react. Who is right?