Dec 30, 2023
Molly E. Smith
Sara Oliva, Lily Jane
As Lioness opens, we find a tired and weary mother and daughter settling into a dingy motel room for the night. The daughter (Lily Jane) is already asleep on the bed while the sound of a car engine outside has spooked the mother (Sara Oliva) into action. She’s taking no chances and gets to work barricading the door to keep them both safe for the night. When her phone starts making noises she switches that off too, as she tries to ensure that nobody can locate them in this small, unexpected safe-haven. No words need to be uttered as we watch this spent, frightened mother do everything she can to keep her child safe from whatever danger lurks outside that empty, lifeless room.
We see that it’s gone well after midnight, but still the mother’s work is not yet done, and we watch as she empties the contents of her handbag out onto the floor as she frantically searches for tools and resources to work with. Everything from the Yellow Pages, to chewing gum, to her own spit, to sanitary towels somehow get utilised by the mother’s ingenuity to help create the atmosphere that she is looking for, but it’s not until we watch her take the surgical tape from a bandage covering a very serious wound on her stomach that we realise just how desperate the situation is for the two women in this story.
Produced, written and edited by Sara Oliva, who also plays the mother, Lioness is a delicate look into an all too common situation. Inspired by her time in one such motel room filming another project as well as her experiences helping out at a Florida based women’s shelter, Oliva fleshed out the idea for Lioness fairly quickly, with the story coming to her in images. These images are in truth both affirming and harrowing at the same time and with Oliva deciding to let them tell the story, along with her incredibly affecting performance, without the need for any real dialogue, they then create a rich, intense and moving short film which is impossible to tear your eyes away from.
Director Molly E. Smith shows a skill and understanding well beyond her years as she helms the project and handles the camera while still being in her senior year at high school. Oliva explains the decision to hire someone so young to direct as coming from the fact that Smith could bridge the generational gap between mother and daughter and nowhere is this expressed more beautifully than when the attention shifts to the daughter’s perspective and the full meaning of the film comes sharply into focus. Helping things along is a beautiful and sometimes haunting score from Austin Becker, while Smith keeps everything stripped back and natural with the sound and lighting coming from within the scene.
There are some really nice details scattered throughout Lioness which should help the eagle-eyed viewer stay aware of the analogy offered by the film’s title; that of a fierce, protective mother doing whatever is necessary to look after her young and give her the best opportunities in life despite any oppressive outside concerns. My favourite of these is that the mother in this story never speaks but is only heard once through a Lioness’ roar. With this seven-minute short film also being dedicated to all the other lionesses out there it can only be hoped that as many of them as possible, as well as anyone else who can identify with a lioness’ soul, will find their way to viewing this small, well-crafted gem, and take from it the strength, ferocity and nurturing tenderness which shines through every frame.