Video on Demand (VOD) films don't get enough respect these days for their small release and limited visibility, but they're far and away some of the most fascinating independent features I've encountered. Case in point: Paul Taylor's latest feature, Driftwood. Its roughly hour-and-10-minute runtime tells its story efficiently, and with an absence of dialogue, viewers rely purely on visual information, action and details. But its mysterious, quasi-science fiction storyline is so bizarre and sparse you need to give it your utmost attention.
A nameless young woman (played by Joslyn Jensen; we'll call her She) emerges from the ocean and is taken by an older man (Paul C. Kelly) to a remote cabin in the woods. The woman's exact identity or purpose seems unknown—is she an alien, animal or vegetable? Who knows, but her wide-eyed gaze and the blank stare she places on everything she encounters, from food to nature to inanimate objects, reveals she is something not of this Earth. Like a newborn baby, She relies on her older master to feed, clothe and even take her to the bathroom, and he teaches her basic housecleaning duties and how to take care of herself. Eventually, the old man's loneliness leads him to dress her in a wedding dress and makeup for an impromptu wedding ceremony.
But She's curiosity of the outside world becomes too problematic for the older man, as she frequently escapes into the woods to explore what exists beyond their domicile. So he returns to the ocean and retrieves a young man (Michael Fentin; we'll call his character He) to train as a manservant while the old man keeps an eye on She. She's unexpected jealousy turns to sympathy as He's frequent clumsiness leads the old man to cruelly reprimand him—and as She and He become closer allies, they band together to find a way out.
Jensen and Fentin's stoic, mechanical body movements feed their unnerving performances and offset the calm, idyllic atmosphere of their surroundings. But they're also quite adept at pulling out pathos for their situation, emoting with their eyes the feelings and thoughts they can't verbally express.
Taylor, who wrote, directed and shot the film, is clearly a visual director and forces us to pay attention to the fine details, the tight, claustrophobic angles, and long takes. While we'll never know who or what She and He are, it's never really relevant in the film. Taylor smartly makes the focus of Driftwood everything we see on the screen, and he cleverly makes use of all the tools in a filmmaker's toolbox to tell a story well.
Another worthwhile feature to stream is Girl Flu., the debut of writer/director Dorie Barton. Girl Flu. focuses on the blessed day in a biological woman's life when she starts her period (I mean this sarcastically, of course). It happens to young sixth-grader Bird (Jade Pettyjohn), the shy bookworm at her school who gets laughed out of her school picnic when Aunt Flo shows up on her white jeans. Bird's junk-food-eating, pot-smoking mother, Jenny (Katee Sackhoff), is no help at all, so Jenny enlists her close lesbian friends Lilli (Heather Matarazzo, of Welcome to the Dollhouse cult heroism) and Celeste (Judy Reyes, from Scrubs) to guide Bird on everything from blood flow to tampons.
Even with a gaggle of women singing the praises of menarche and a pseudo-spiritual rite of passage ceremony, Bird is at a loss for how to deal with becoming a woman. While grappling with how to properly apply pads at night, she's also dealing with a recent move away from her life in the Valley and being the oddball targeted by chola-fied school bully Rachel. Bird's cluelessness drives her to go to a Women's Center to get her tubes tied (she thinks it will prevent more periods from happening), sneaking pot from her mother and other misadventures.
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There aren't many films that deal with a female's first period, but there are plenty that deal with mother-daughter relationships and teen angst. Girl Flu. exhibits some of the ways the adolescent frustrations can be founded in ridiculous notions while also balancing the valid angst offspring often have toward parents. Though well-done, it's not a perfect film; one of its main weaknesses involves aimless characters who drift in and out of scenes. For example, Jeremy Sisto plays Jenny's boyfriend, Arlo, a musician who doesn't seem to have much to do besides smoke on the porch and complain about his and Jenny's relationship not moving forward (and you have to be some kind of loser if a musician is more serious about commitment than you).
Still, Girl Flu. is a cutesy, funny look into a significant moment in every female's life, told with spirit and warmth and carried by strong performances, humor and relatability.
Driftwood was written and directed by Paul Taylor; and stars Joslyn Jensen, Michael Fentin and Paul C. Kelly.
Girl Flu. was written and directed by Dorie Barton; and stars Katee Sackhoff and Jade Pettyjohn. Both are available to stream on iTunes.