Directed by: #EmilyOBrien
Written by: Emily O'Brien
Music & Lyrics: #MariaAlfonsine
Cosmic Dancer is a Kickstarter funded production from Australian director Emily O’Brien. Although only her third directorial effort, O’Brien has already achieved a very professional and well-produced aesthetic with this movie. Possessing a delightfully quaint humour in its #cinematography, a mysterious, carnivalesque atmosphere, and some truly terrific performances from the children in the lead roles, Cosmic Dancer is one of the most satisfying short films you’re likely to see this year.
We are introduced to the main character: Alistair (Ryan Cleland), an introverted primary-school student who accidentally stumbles upon a weighty, leather-bound tome in the library. Contained within its pages are the secrets of the once renowned – now forgotten – illusionist Magic Etoiles (Tristan McKinnon). Alistair, suitably inspired, is thrown into the world of the fantastique as he signs up to the impending school talent show as a magician himself. What follows are bizarre, dream-like conferences with Magic Etoiles and Alistair’s quest to discover the secret to his last, undocumented trick. Along the way he meets Margaret (Bettie Belle Kay): a ten-year-old aspiring thespian with the rapier wit of Oscar Wilde and who might just hold the secret to Alistair’s ambitions to ‘dance among the stars’.
First and foremost, full credit must go to O’Brien for finding such fantastic actors as Cleland and Belle Kay to portray Alistair and Margaret, as well as directing them deftly throughout. Although the film is ostensibly about winning a talent show with a secret magic trick, it is really an exploration of the growing friendship between these two characters, which is both endearing and believable. The camera work develops this theme by being highly reminiscent of a #WesAnderson movie, particularly with its quick pans and innocent-but-isolated aesthetic. Tristan McKinnon’s performance as Magic Etoiles appears to be channelling Johnny Depp and he provides the requisite mystique to the story adroitly. It certainly complements the direction of the art department who were, ostensibly, going for a ‘magician meets [David] Bowie’ look for the film; a glam reference that even carries through to the title, surely a nod to Marc Bolan and T-Rex?
The overall tone of the film is ambivalent and quite difficult to pinpoint. Although the dialogue and generally comedic approach to the material is uplifting, there is a tangible sadness that pervades throughout. An interesting stylistic choice from O’Brien is to mute every character’s skin-tone to a sickly grey, with the muted primary colours around them expressing a dull inspiration just waiting to be expressed. The great end-credits song by Maria Alfonsine is also a bittersweet gem in the film’s crown, one that audiences might feel is reminiscent of Juno or 500 Days of Summer, especially with the drawings that accompany the credits. All of this combines with great effect to capture not only the loneliness of Alistair himself but also of childhood generally. It’s a masterful approach and it breathes legitimacy into the lesson at the heart of the story: companionship and trust are what bring real magic into our lives.
Cosmic Dancer was a real treat to watch; we’re truly spoiled to live in the Kickstarter age where funding for independent films like this is so easy to generate, especially when it’s executed so competently. The acting, directing and overall production are all top-notch for a movie made with such limited resources. If indie directors of Emily O’Brien’s calibre are to become the norm and can successfully expand their work with bigger ideas and budgets, audiences are sure to be in for a treat!