Directed by Raphael Biss Starring Tom Barker and Luke Neves Short Film Review by Andrew Young
Tone is a very tricky thing in cinema. It is difficult for the filmmaker to keep it consistent, but without making their film monotonous either. Make your film too light and comedic, with no dramatic weight, and you risk being accused of lacking substance; make your film too serious and devoid of levity and the film is ready to be attacked as “leaden with the weight of its own self-importance”, for instance. Some of the most dazzling films ever made have great shifts in tone; if you don’t believe me go and watch Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting. Yet sometimes these shifts in tone and settling on the right tone for your material lead to a jarring experience for the viewer and a not entirely successful film. Raphael Biss’ Between Viewings struggles to avoid such a trap, its juggling of tones made all the more difficult by its short running time. However Biss and writer Daniel Cripps must be commended for taking an interesting, worthwhile approach to an otherwise straightforward story.
The short opens with estate agent Ben (Tom Barker) offering us his amusingly cheesy tips for selling houses. It is a fast, comedic segment to open with and would suggest a quickly established direction for the film, but instead we are given a much more reflective drama, with gentle comedy peppered throughout. When Ben is handed the documents for the latest house he is to sell he would be ready to work his magic and move on to the next one, except the house he has been given is his old family home. From here, Ben encounters a younger version of himself (Luke Neves), the manifestation of his insecurities about the way his life has ended up. As a child, Ben was desperate to be an archaeologist but alas, money and opportunities probably got in his way so here he is now – an estate agent.
It is an interesting premise and Cripps cleverly adds a deeper emotional layer to the film’s core theme in making Ben’s parents diametrically opposed in their views on his future. His father wants him to follow his dreams, whereas his mother takes a much more practical view of the situation. The tension between them adds something of a guilt complex to Ben’s character, making him a more sympathetic character. It is a shame, however, that the key scenes with his parents are a bit on-the-nose in their dialogue, adding to the impression of a lack of complexity given by the film as a whole.
It is perhaps because of the simple nature of the story that Biss takes more stylistic risks early on. When looking around the house, each door opens up into a new memory, or even an area of Ben’s mind. It is an effectively disorientating sequence, with credit going to DoP Vaia Ikonomou and editor Craig Lewis as well as Biss himself. This adds a slightly threatening edge to the tone, as Ben is confronted with truths he perhaps doesn’t want to hear. It is in this opening half of the film, however, that the tonal difficulties show. Going from the straightforward comedy of the opening to the quiet, reflective soul-searching to the mind-entering segment, all mixed with some odd-couple bantering between the older and younger Bens means that none of it really hits as hard as it could. The psychedelic elements are not as unsettling as they were perhaps intended to be, the drama does not hit that deep and the comedy is faintly amusing without ever being uproariously funny. The difficulties in this part of the film are reflected in the performances too. Like the short as a whole, they are fine, but not stand-out and perhaps not as malleable to the tonal shifts as hoped. Barker and Neves sell the bickering but lack the spark for the comedy to fly, whilst Barker has the requisite charm for the elder Ben, but is perhaps lacking in the more deeply emotional scenes.
It is when Between Viewings moves past this and settles on its tone that it is at its best. The latter section, with Ben literally and metaphorically unburying bits of his past, is winningly played and has just the balance of light and reflective drama that works so well with the acoustic guitars of Field Commander Short Shorts lilting away in the background. It is in this terrain that Barker is best too, his charming smile suiting the material to a tee. Even here, Biss’ short is not earth-shattering, it is a nicely made film with an important, if familiar message and a lovely charm to it. Biss and the other filmmakers show their talents in approaching the material in interesting ways, a fine attempt to elevate it above the simplicity of the story, if not always entirely successful.