Heartland: Before the Bomb
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Writer-director Tannaz Hazemi’s short film “Before the Bomb” is the story of 10-year-old Elsa and her 5-year-old brother, Morris. Elsa and Morris are the children of an absent, alcoholic single mother and they are forced to fend for themselves. Elsa in particular must take on tremendous responsibility, scrounging through their mess of a house to feed her younger brother and then walking him to school every morning. Elsa even finds herself parenting their mother, leaving a glass of water and some aspirin at her bedside (right next to the empty bottle of whiskey) as the mother sleeps off the previous night’s binge.
Away from home she envies the nice dresses and hair barrettes of the other girls in her class, and window-shops and daydreams over a $7 dress she can’t afford.
The two children innocently drift along in this limbo of neglect until one day they receive a call marking an impending visit from Child Protective Services. Knowing CPS might take them from the home and separate them, Elsa takes matters into her own hands. Elsa bribes her brother with pizza into helping her clean up before the “visitors” arrive, and later tells him “They just want to know that we’re happy.” “Why?” the boy replies. “Because we are happy” says Elsa.
The little boy’s incredulous look silently says it all.
“Before the Bomb” is a sensitive, heart-wrenching look at the lives of two children fighting for the simple security and happiness that most people take for granted. Director Hazemi’s film doesn’t rely on the overblown tropes to which most Hollywood family dramas resort. There are no scenes of the mother viciously abusing the children; in fact the unnamed mother hardly appears during the film’s 23 minute run-time. There are no violent outbursts or hateful diatribes. Instead, this film is about the violence of neglect, an insidious, slow and silent kind of abuse that leaves psychological scars rather than physical ones.
Hazemi’s direction and Hillary Spera’s cinematography perfectly capture the timeless fugue state that comes from this sort of neglectful environment. The story seamlessly drifts from one scene to the next, and you are filled with the sense that this may be a languid remembrance of past pain rather than events taking place in the present. The tension between Elsa’s desire to be happy in spite of how things are versus the risk of dreaming for something better is present throughout, and the film’s title — never explained or even alluded to in the narrative — more than suggests that the choice she makes has deep and enduring consequences. This profound and bittersweet feeling permeates this masterful short film from start to finish.
Both child actors in this film, Jesse Dean Peterson as Morris and Sterling Jerins (“The Conjuring,” “No Escape”) as Elsa, give excellent performances. Neither actor appears to be over-emoting or forcing delivery of a line, a real rarity even in bigger-budget films. Jerins in particular is exceptional as Elsa, giving an understated, yet complex and affecting, performance that resonates. It’s impressive work and bodes well for the future of the talented 11-year-old.
“Before the Bomb” is a fine example of the Heartland Film Festival’s commitment to purposeful filmmaking and should be a contender for the Narrative Short Audience Choice this year.