Birthday, the narrative short film from director Chris King, feels stylistically as a documentary. This adds to its weight. In a tightly framed set of reverses, we are privy to a grin-filled conversation between two people over Skype. One, a marine (Chris Gouchoe) 43 days away from the end of his tour. The other, his schoolteacher wife (Mandy Moody) anxiously awaiting his return.
The next three minutes are told in montage over what is perhaps an overly sentimental string score. We see the soldier step on a landmine. We see his wife’s response. We see his slow, grueling recovery.
He returns home on his birthday. As he enters the threshold and surveys the home, as if it is a foreign land he has only seen in photographs, the camera moves about. In a static shot of him turning around to see the room, we realize that we have yet to see the full extent of his injurious change. The hearing aids in both ears signals partial hearing loss from the blast.
This is the subject that Birthday attempts to broach. There are the visually obvious casualties of war: paralysis, limb loss, and the like. But there are also other less obvious permanent effects that face veterans both physically and emotionally.
We get a treatment of this subject in a revealing moment. Perhaps the most expected response to the soldier’s return home is tears. Perhaps, then, it feels too obvious a choice when that is what we see on screen, the man weeping with his head hung over his birthday cake. But it is not a moment of unilateral emotion. He is not crying merely because he views the previous conversation of handrails as a sign that his wounds will be an ongoing struggle.
It may seem like this at first, that he is worried for a future in which he could become a burden to his wife. But the reveal of his face to his wife, and thus the audience, shows something far more multi-faceted. There is something enigmatic in that shot of Gouchoe’s face, something more telling than anything else in the short could hope to be. Indeed, something more telling than perhaps the film deserves.
In another extended montage that follows this, we get an unavoidable mirroring of the first montage. Both montages probe at the undeniable motivation of hope. But where the first montage contains a minority of hope and a majority of struggle, the second montage reverses this, even going so far as to play with struggle as a weakened entity in the face of hope.
For all intents and purposes, these two montages are a strong silent distillation of a post-traumatic life. While the score and the performances add a more superficial layer of emotionality over the top of this, there is something to be said for the film’s quiet delivery.
Birthday, in short, is a dual-layered film. There is the over layer of sentimentality that may be a bit too pushy in its delivery even though it is impossible to avoid sentiment in depicting such an emotionally charged subject matter. Then there is also the under layer of unseen emotion. It is the sunken face of the soldier weeping, then revealed in an almost undecipherable expression of compassion. It is the quiet progression of the relationship in the second montage, the playful flicking of a fork.
Finding this under layer is key to seeing the success in Birthday. It may not be immediately evident when surrounded by everything else, but it is a touching kernel of truth in an otherwise dramatized piece of faux documentary.
To call it “faux documentary” is not to downplay the stylistic intent of the film. It is a smartly chosen visual aesthetic, in that it pulls the viewer into what feels like a real-world household. It may clash in juxtaposition with dual montages, which inherently make events feel unreal and out of time, but it gives the film a strong visual grounding.
As always, thanks for reading.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)