A Raindance Film Festival review of STRINGS and video Q&A with the cast and crew by Timothy E. RAW
Turning eighteen on the first day of your first feature made for a meagre £3000, is the kind of inspirational behind the scenes headline that can get in the way of the film itself. So enough on writer-director-photographer Rob Savage and producer Nathan Craig's incredible feat of passion and perseverance, as all that and much more is detailed in our exclusive chat with the filmmaker and principal cast members at a Q&A session this past weekend at the 20th Raindance Film Festival, where the film also had the distinction of being nominated for best debut.
No, what's really incredible is that despite his impressionable age, the then teenage filmmaker was able to look past the influence of others, and with maturity beyond his years and avoid the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-reunites-with-girl trap altogether. Sidestepping formula which doesn't allow for erratic and sudden changes of heart, Savage tunes the adolescent wavelength of wavering emotional commitment brilliantly. It also makes perfect sense that same-age formative life experience leaves him at as much of a loss as his characters when it comes to decoding any of it.
A modest but effective look at high schoolers on the cusp of adulthood, Strings wins points for its authenticity in casting a quartet who act their age, mercifully sparing us the adult-as-teen side effect of ironic snark and preciousness. In the platitude-free screenplay, rejoinders are functionally inept and clumsily believable, fumbling self-deprication never quite broaching self-confidence.
It's all very admirably honest but also a little too simplistic, paring back a plot which is barely there to begin with. Four friends are spending their final summer together before going to university, and visiting German student, Grace (Philine Lembeck) is soon to return home. The script hangs much of Grace's angst on frustratingly obscure mummy issues, but as played by the ill-at-ease Lembeck, Grace's unstated disconcertment seems to stem more from the late realisation that she ought to be making more of her last few weeks abroad. Getting together with stiff, brooding Jon (forever furrowed, Oliver Malam) can't help but feel like something of a nostagic afterthought. In years to come she'll vividly remember the Summer she lost her virginity but might be a little fuzzy on the guy who took it from her. This partially invested curiosity is a nicely underplayed element of their non-courtship, giving the eventual fizzle of their fling a painful inevitability.
Far from never wanting the summer to end, Grace's best friend Scout (Hannah Wilder in both name and nature) is wishing it away, looking far beyond the attentions of Chris (Sid Akbar Ali) whose days as her clingy boyfriend are surely numbered. Every bit the roving free spirit suggested by her improbable name, Chris embraces Scout like a bear, hugging her tightly enough to betray his desperation. In the physicality of Chris' doomed stab at next-level coupledom, Akbar Ali strikes a well observed mix of pathetic placidity and besotted gaucheness. The character appears as overwhelmed as the actor was during our Q&A, and Ackbar Ali quickly finds a groove but is far less successful at convincing us of Chris' abrupt and off-hand violence. More lanky Pooh bear than dangerous grizzly, it's not entirely his fault, given that the couple's physical altercation feels tacked on as a means of differentiating two male characters both at the behest of the women temporarily sharing their beds.
Like Grace, Scout's indefinite attitude is not satisfactorily turned over in eighty-five minutes, but there's something about Savage's fascination with the two girls and how he gives them ownership of the story instead of putting a male proxy of himself at the centre, that makes their half-formed personalities fun to grapple with and intuit their behaviour. There's a respect toward the characters and their situations that makes us trust the young director even as one suspects he doesn't fully understand where he's taking them. There's only one area where Savage insists on his own personality where it doesn't belong and of all things it's the set dressing. Movie posters of Almost Famous and Margot at the Wedding adorn Grace's wall, while Jon's room features the incongruous combination of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and La Dolce Vita. A love of film informs neither character's personality, nor does it play into their post coital conversations which make up many of their scenes together. Too coincidently neat for them both to be showing visible signs of cinephillia and not talking about it, this is a case of the filmmaker filling the frame with his own tastes and not the characters'.
Though some viewers may lose patience trying to pin these four down, it's commendable that in each case, Savage avoids stereotyping, acknowledging the teenage prerogative of mutable mood, a disposition reflected in the ever-shifting colour scheme. Amidst all these fluctuating feelings, it's Hannah Wilder who brings the most nuance to her character. Pivoting perfectly between independence and immaturity, we may not fully understand why, but Wilder makes sense of Scout's desperate need for reassurance somewhere in the middle. We don't know where it comes from, but it's why she can't leave the town she hates so much (even the trees!) without Grace in tow. Spontaneously skipping town is something she'd love to do but it's Grace who has to twist her arm to do it, and Scout won't explore her sexuality without Grace as witness, implicitly giving her permission to hook up at a house party. Grace and Scout' shared delusion that the rush of teenage freedom is just a train ride away comes crashing down as soon as they step foot outside the boundaries of familiar surroundings. These quiet disappointments are true to the naive expectations of those years, and for all of Jon's hang-ups about being seen as a 'a real person', his creator has furnished a film with four teenagers as real as you're likely to find on screen. Truthfully unpredictable and intriguingly contradictory, the last thing Savage can be accused of, is pulling any strings.