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Precious car goes
It started with an email from a friend. Her daughter had a small part in a short film. It’s won awards internationally and is now on the UK festival tour and as it’s showing soon at the Norwich Film Festival, Camus strongly urges you to seek out SYLVIA...

Note: Wow. I have been sitting in front of a blank MS Word document for some time trying really hard to find a way in to review Sylvia without spoiling it. Even using certain adjectives can be too revealing. It does what it does so well and with such beautiful sleight of hand that by the time the short narrative bows out (its running time is exactly twenty minutes), you want to go right back and take a closer look (wiping your eyes thoroughly before you do so).

There is a tiny, greasy footprint on the ceiling of my bedroom where I held my infant son up in play decades ago. We moved out of that house and it still tugs at me that this small tangible patch of an exquisite memory is about to be, or has been emulsioned away by the new owners. Three years ago, we sold a four by four jeep, the back seat of which was where I held my beloved springer-collie cross as a needle put her out of her evident cancer-induced misery. I don't miss the car but there's still that same tug, that of time, relentlessly laying waste to things you hold so dear. The trick is to notice them in their moment and realise what an extraordinary gift being alive actually is. Sylvia is about that tug and how something as prosaic as a car can be a mobile home, an entertainment centre, a safe shell protecting friends and loved ones and a place where memories are made. By definition, in a car you are always going forward and there's something very positive about that idea.


Mandy (Jolie Lennon), a young mother bundles her two young daughters into the back of their Opal Senator car, nicknamed 'Sylvia' after the Dr. Hook song. Her mother joins them for a final road trip. Their destination is the house of the new owner of the car. It's reluctantly being sold because Mandy needs the money as young mothers always do. More memories are made along the way as the kids make their own physical marks in the car and Mandy's mother Linda, like all grandmothers, rarely acknowledges any maternal authority, and spoils the children every chance she can. That's about as much as I want to reveal about the narrative. Jolie Lennon is superb in the lead role of the harassed mother. It's infuriating because I can't say exactly why she's so good but trust me. Her performance gets better on repeated viewings because in specific shots, her character has to be revealed in subtle shades. Gaynor Fraser plays the doting grandmother, both the wise voice of reason and experience and playful family rebel. The children (played by the producer and director's own children I'm assuming) are incapable of inauthentic behaviour. I'd like to remind the older one that the ice-cream man was not being rude. The bemused buyer at the end of the journey is Brian played by Benjamin Hartley. He lights up a cigarette at his doorstep. It's extraordinary how smoking has now been so marginalised these days. All I could think was “Don't smoke in the car!” His honest responses to events are measured and inviting. There is not a single character that you cannot sympathise with, even Brian's daughter, played by Willow Major, who's thrilled to be getting her own wheels. And what special wheels they are.

Sylvia does have feature film precedents but there are two aspects of it that really come to the fore and the first imbues the second with such force. Firstly, there is the realisation that only cinema can do this; tell such a narrative in such a way. It's this reason perhaps that the filmmakers chose the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and for such a road movie it's perfect. And made all the more powerful by this is the second aspect - this is a true story (no spoiler as it's announced at the start) and Sylvia harnesses the power of real events and adds more emotional weight to it. The precise framings are creative and dynamic and each shot has been given much thought as to how its own emotional contribution will fit within the bigger picture. Bravo Rowan Biddiscombe and Tom Coe. Hugely important is what to show, when and for how long. The timing of the editing is first class. As an editor myself, I have one question. I didn't understand the inclusion of the static shot of the countryside as Mandy is dealing with her youngest covered in blackcurrant juice. Was it a needed cutaway and there was nothing else? It was the only shot I couldn't read, the only one I couldn't figure out why it was there. I could find no other credits on editor Jack Clayton Wright's IMdb page but if this is the start of a career, what a lovely way to debut. A nod also to the sound design, which was evocative with nicely wrought transitions. I'd mention those responsible but for reasons known to the producer, no one is credited in this capacity on either the IMdb page or the end credits. Staying with sound, if the Dr. Hook song gets us off to a great start, Jonathan Hamer's atmospheric underscore keeps the drama bubbling until we segue into the perfect accompaniment to play us out. Originally I named the piece of music but again… spoilers!


Finally great credit must go to the invisible technique of director Richard Prendergast who stitched all these elements together with great taste, restraint and class. He teased out superb performances and judged the opening of the emotional tap to perfection. He brought us halfway to Sylvia allowing us to complete the journey ourselves, an aspect of the film I admired greatly. Producers hardly ever get creative credit in film journalism so it gives me great pleasure to mention Rachel Prendergast who must have made a great deal of this movie and experience possible, a labour of love if there ever was one.


To book seats for a 12.30pm screening at The Forum (the big glass building right in the middle of Norwich) on the closing day of the festival, Sunday 18th November, visit:

Sylvia poster

UK 2018
20 mins
directed by
Richard Prendergast
produced by
Rachel Prendergast
written by
Richard Prendergast
Rowan Biddiscombe
Tom Coe
Jack Clayton-Wright
Jolie Lennon
Benjamin Hartley
Gaynor Fraser
Mick Fryer-Kelsey
Willow Major

festival screening
18 November 2018
review posted
27 September 2018

See all of Camus' reviews