Short Film Review: X.
Part of TNT’s anthology of women directors, X is a well constructed slice-of-life drama.
Always looking for new sources of short films, I stumbled upon TNT and Refinery 29’s collaborative anthology series, Shatterbox. This project, now entering its second season, promotes the work of new and established female directors. Looking over past contributors, the roster of talent is striking. As it was my first foray into the series, I chose to review X, the directorial debut of star and advocate Yara Shahidi (Black-ish, Smallfoot).
X describes itself as a modern contemplation of French Impressionism and the celebrated short film of Albert Lamorisse, The Red Balloon, all filtered through the lived-in experience of black youth. Suitable to those influences, the film has a narrative flow like a bubble in a stream. There is very little dialogue and several artistic choices that risk popping the bubble, but overall the film allows you to be a passenger alongside the protagonist X as he/she navigates modern life.
A young black boy begins his day with a note from his parents to pick up cereal on the way home from school. As the day progresses, the youth changes age and gender several times, showing a multifaceted day in the life of a child of color in a city in America.
The choice to use four actors of different ages and genders for X is bold, but feels natural to the piece. The shift in perspective is so seamless that I had to rewind a few times to spot exactly when the swap was made, as it often involves pulling on or off a hoodie. It can feel a bit disconcerting, as a few of the events seem tailored to the actor, so that initially I thought it was separate vignettes instead of one constantly flowing story. A potential molester on the bus is more striking because the protagonist just switched to a female actor, while a violent store owner profiling X seems more menacing because the actor is older in that scene.
I’d imagine that was part of the point: it may seem that certain dangers or indignities are usually reserved for certain people, but X experiences all of them because of the common denominator – being black in America. It also challenges preconceived notions of who is at risk of what in our society; boys can be the victims of child predators and young girls can be racially profiled by vigilantes, we’re just used to it being the other way around because those are the narratives we’re usually shown.
The pace, lack of dialogue, and graceful transition between scenes and settings really make you feel swept along with X. X is constantly in motion, passing by images and events that the camera often lingers on after the character has passed through the scene. Yara Shahidi has deft control of our focus and a light touch. After finishing my first viewing, I thought the film was artistically composed but a bit breezy. There are just a few big moments, the rest is of the film is subtext and subtlety. After another viewing, many of the deeper currents stood out. The subtlety allows you to absorb as much or little as you want; the pacing makes it an engaging watch on either level.
X Marks the Spot.
X is a strong first effort from Shahidi. It is very well made, showing technical prowess without calling attention to itself. Only one scene had some editing flourishes that felt forced. I enjoyed the pacing, the visual composition and use of color, and the effective soundtrack. I may be partial tot he last, I’ll never get tired of hearing what NAS is like. The soundtrack is organic to the piece, either in X’s earphones or coming from an ambient source in the environment. Sometimes that trick feels gimmicky, but here it was effective.
The themes and subject matter are handled deftly. X isn’t a film that shouts, or even whispers. It speaks plainly with unadorned candor. It is an experiential narrative, and it has measures of the sublime and shabby equally. Like many good films on the subject of race in America, it has plenty going on under the surface. I’m hoping Yara Shahidi continues to work behind the camera after such a fine debut.