Tanner Smith’s Verdict: Byran Stafford’s BallerinaAugust 11, 2012
By Tanner Smith
“What I’m about to tell you is hard to believe — I only ask that you hear me out.”
This is the start of a bizarre conversation between two men—one of which is telling the other something that is indeed hard to believe. What he’s about to say will shatter one’s vision of reality. That’s the setup for the short film Ballerina, which tells a story in an unusual way—just telling the story. The whole film’s running time of 16 minutes is centered around these two men—one talks, the other listens and reacts. It works because it’s acted with such conviction and credibility, and filmed with a disturbing mood to sink us in, that I found myself (risking a little embarrassment here) mouthing the word “Wow.”
Presented in black-and-white, we see a man named Frank Gross (Dean Denton) sitting in his living room on a quiet afternoon, reading a book as his young daughter Katie (Weslee Denton) draws pictures. It seems like a quiet, normal day until the doorbell rings. Frank answers the door; a man in a suit—Dr. David Sinclair (Ed Lowry)—stands outside, asking for a moment of Frank’s time. What is this about, Frank asks. “What I’m about to tell you is hard to believe—I only ask that you hear me out.” Sinclair starts by performing a few parlor tricks, but are they really tricks? (“I’m bad at that sort of thing,” he explains.) For example, he tells Frank to pick up the book he was reading and pick two numbers between 1 and 20. He does, and then states what word is on what line and order with those same numbers! He then proceeds to state the family history, including Frank’s current job and his deceased wife. At this point, you’re wondering what is going on here, who this strange person is, why he’s here, what he’s going to say next, etc. What follows is quite unusual, very odd, and just so intriguing. Watching this film, you can either be very invested, very disturbed, or both.
How do I explain just how powerful Ballerina is without going into too much detail about the further-developed plot points, especially in a short film? Even though most of you reading this review have seen the film online by now, I stick to methods of reviewing.
Sinclair’s words dig deeper and deeper into the strangeness, and the fear he delivers to Frank is legitimate. Frank doesn’t want to believe what he’s hearing, but Sinclair sounds so convincing that neither he, nor we, can argue. Even when Frank is about to snap and say he’s wrong, he still isn’t so sure. And when he’s finally convinced, he knows that there’s no turning back from this. As the film progresses, you can really feel the uneasiness that is existent throughout. A lot of credit for that has to go to the cinematography (by Dave Calhoun) that actually manages to turn a living room into an effectively unpleasant setting; the screenplay (by David Koon, of The Bloodstone Diaries) for taking a intriguing, unique science-fiction story and mixing it with realism, making it all plausible (keeping it in this one familiar living-room area, the casual introductory talk before Frank and Sinclair begin their central talk, how Frank reacts to certain elements, etc.) and making for a great script; the director Bryan Stafford (cinematographer for the wonderful Gerry Bruno short Seven Souls and Juli Jackson’s upcoming feature 45 RPM) for managing to get the most out of what little space there is to work with. And of course, credit must also be given to the two lead actors Ed Lowry and Dean Denton, who both deliver excellent work. Lowry has the most difficult role, being the one who has to deliver this speech about what will occur if a certain choice is or isn’t made. He pulls it off with chilling success.
Ballerina is so strange, so disturbing, and yet so effective that I’ll even go as far as saying it reminded me of the best “Twilight Zone” episodes. It’s a tense, intelligent short film that tells a gripping story, shows that any location (whether common or beyond) can be used to create a unique setting, is exceptionally well-made, and keeps us invested the whole time.
Smith’s Verdict: ★★★★