After meeting at the 2015 TIFF Talent Lab, filmmakers Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer have become regular collaborators, writing, directing and producing three short films and a feature together. They are also both survivors of abuse, and have recently begun to explore this subject through their film work. Their debut feature Violation (2020) is a rape-revenge film that shrouds either end of that divide in uncomfortable ambiguity – and made just before that, their short film Chubby casts a close, woozy eye on transgressive behaviour and the denial that follows it.
There are two constituent narratives in Chubby. In the first, precocious, notably not chubby ten-year-old Jude (incredibly talented newcomer Maya Harman) tries to persuade her favourite uncle Noah (the excellent Jesse LaVercombe, also in Violation) – who permissively lets her swear and drink – to come to her dance recital by engaging him in an escalating game of dare where taboos are broken, moral lines are crossed and the meaning of the title gradually comes out. In the second, at a later Christmas get-together of her extended family, Jude plays out, endangering one of her younger relatives, while tensions simmer between Jude’s mother (Deragh Campbell) and grandmother (Heather Allin) as they wait for the delayed Noah to arrive. In other words, this is a film of two halves – where what happens in one section has a ripple effect on the next – and Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer further confound the interplay between these sequences by intercutting repeatedly from one to the other rather than showing them in strict chronological sequence. Cinematographer Adam Crosby’s tight handheld camerawork – all at once intimate and impressionistic – is chopped up by editor Curt Lobb to create a family portrait in mosaic, where the unspeakable and the unspoken are kept just out of frame.
From the opening sound (and later image) of Jude blowing into a recorder, to a close-up of her sucking on a grape, to dares that involve swallowing someone else’s snot or chewed gum, or licking toilet seats or drinking pee from a bottle, an oral motif emerges which paints its own picture, and fills in the gaping hole of the narrative’s central, unseen event. By the end, we are in no doubt about what has happened, but still Jude – already a victim of horrific manipulation, exploitation and much, much worse – is then put into the awful position of also having to shoulder the burden of blame herself, and to cover for her errant uncle in the interests of maintaining the family’s integrity. It is a difficult series of domestic snapshots, showing a closely knit clan coming apart at the seams as some of its members prefer to embrace a palatable lie than to confront an obvious truth – and so make one of its younger members suffer twice over, in an adult game that she cannot win.
© Anton Bitel