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Indy Film Fest: Empty Space

by on July 18, 2016
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"Empty Space" (2016), directed by James Choi and starring Merrick Robison and Elizabeth Stenholt, is now playing at Indy Film Fest.

“Empty Space,” directed by James Choi, is a coming-of-age “dramedy” about an overweight teenager named Tom (Merrick Robison). After years of being teased and bullied about his appearance, Tom moves away from home to live in his departed grandmother’s cabin in the rural town of Protection, Illinois. For Tom, the move is an attempt to break from the past; he arrives in town with no car, no friends, no family and no job. He is a young man attempting to disappear as best he can.

Tom awkwardly drifts through life in the small town, barely interacting with the locals, and when he does draw any attention he encounters the same kind of small-minded bullying he was trying to escape. Tom takes a job as a dishwasher at a local diner where even his grouchy boss, Lloyd (David McLauchlan), treats him poorly. Only Lloyd’s on-again, off-again girlfriend and employee Gladys (Suzanne Johnson) has anything resembling encouraging words for Tom, and that consists of chastising him for settling for such a dismal existence. Gladys feels stuck at the diner because of her relationship with Lloyd and the need to feed her family. Tom, she warns, inexplicably chooses to be there.

Working at the diner, Tom meets a young girl named Rebecca (Madysen Frances) — a tough, sharp-tongued street kid who browbeats Tom into giving her leftover food from the diner. Rebecca even follows Tom home and cons him into letting her stay there to escape the cold winter night. Rebecca isn’t homeless, but her only family is her father, Hank (Ryan David Heywood), an alcoholic who bullied Tom shortly after his arrival in Protection.

Eventually Tom meets Lilly (Elizabeth Stenholt), a smart and lively young blind girl who works at the town’s laundromat. Tom uncharacteristically steps in when Lilly is harassed by a rude customer making unwelcome advances, and the two teenagers strike up a friendship. Lilly manages to break through Tom’s nearly paralyzing self-doubt and their relationship grows as they slowly open up to one another.

Prior to Tom meeting Lilly, the first act of “Empty Space” feels like just that … empty space. There are a lot of quiet scenes of Tom alone and feeling depressed, and clearly the intent is to establish the emptiness of his life. The film doesn’t cohesively deliver that feeling in the early going. The scenes instead feel stiltingly improvised and lacking in context. “Empty Space” was shot on a shoestring budget with just three crew members in 14 days, and in the first 30 minutes, it shows. The film would have greatly benefited from more time to stage and shoot these scenes so they drove the narrative thematically. it is quite difficult to say something meaningful without resorting to expository dialogue. The filmmakers make an honest effort but don’t quite hit the mark here.

The film improves, however, once Tom and Lilly begin interacting. Lilly is sharp, outgoing and confident, qualities she needs to get through Tom’s painfully shy and guarded demeanor. Stenholt brings a refreshingly grounded and gentle quality to Lilly that thankfully helps steer the character well clear of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” stereotype that so often appears in these ugly-duckling movie romances. Although at times the character seems to be improbably wise beyond her years, Stenholt’s performance sells it. It’s easy to believe Lilly has been through enough in life to have learned more than a little about how to live it.

In this regard, the script by Judi Krant and Paul Boring is more generous to Lilly’s character than it is to Tom’s. Lilly seems to be a more clearly drawn and fully formed character than Tom; admittedly, Tom is laconic and withdrawn, but more could have been down to help us understand and empathize with him. Surely Tom’s physical appearance and social awkwardness are the primary sources of his depression, but we get precious little idea on what it actually means to him. I kept expecting a scene where Tom shares some soul-baring anecdote that really helps the audience embrace the character — like the one Lilly tells about wanting to see a Redwood — but it never comes.

Instead, the character of Tom falls flat despite a good effort by Robison. He shines mostly with the more comedic aspects of the character, seeming more at ease smiling and laughing than he is with sullenly milling about. Perhaps it’s just a sign that the actor is more of the former than the latter in real life, but I suspect if the script had articulated the exact events that led to Tom coming to Protection that Robison could have sold the performance in much the way Stenholt did with Lilly.

Although “Empty Space” is rough around the edges and the story meanders a bit, there are some tender, poignant moments — as well as some genuinely funny ones — that shine in this coming-of-age film. Overall, it is a promising story that feels more like a good proof-of-concept film rather than a highly polished festival feature.

3 Yaps

2016 Indy Film Fest Showtimes:
7:15 p.m., Tuesday, July 19, DeBoest Lecture Hall – Click here for tickets
11:00 a.m., Friday, July 22, The Toby – Click here for tickets

 

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