Perhaps the most engaging aspect of Erica Tremblay’s short drama Little Chief, which has the honor of heading to Sundance next year, is the opening sequence. That’s not to say that the rest of the film fails to engage, it’s just that when a film has such a perfectly delivered, expertly crafted opening, the rest of the film either needs to deliver on that or is always going to suffer.
The rest of the film, for the most part, delivers, but just isn’t quite as good as the sequence that precedes it. It centers around a character introduction and is presented is such a uniformly pitch perfect way that it was always going to be difficult to top it.
In the opening sequence we’re introduced to Lily Gladstone’s protagonist, and exhausted but driven schoolteacher named Sharon. We don’t know she’s a teacher yet, though, and there’s little about the opening three minutes or so that would suggest we should know. Instead we watch as this wearied, tired young woman makes her way into a swanky hotel and nicks some bits from a maid’s trolly. This little mini heist is treated almost like an everyday occurrence, with Sharon moving quickly and with precision through the space. It builds a nice amount of suspense too, while never pushing over into absurd territory. Completely devoid of dialogue, it’s a great moment of visual storytelling (we even get a sense of her character when we see her “Warriors Respect Women” bag) and a it lays out a person who is mysteriously intriguing and hard to figure out.
This sense of mystery surrounding Sharon is quickly broken when we discover her occupation as a schoolteacher. But rather than undercut the work the film has already done engaging us in this narrative and engrossing us in this world, the revelation acts more like a further element of the mystery. Now we know who she is, the theft of items from a hotel maid’s trolly becomes part of a wider, far more complex character.
It’s a clever move, and it works in creating someone who not only can the audience relate to and align themselves with, but also in ensuring that Sharon is, in just a few short minutes, a complete, fully formed, three-dimensional person. And for a film that’s coming in just over 11 minutes in length, that is f**king impressive. I mean, that is really f**king impressive.
But we can’t talk about the character of Sharon without giving special mention to the actress who embodies her. Lily Gladstone is fantastic in the role. Her eyes portray a weariness deeper than anything a script could manage to convey, and there are moments throughout the short where the subtlest of looks or the exacerbated slump of a shoulder speaks volumes. It’s a performance worth taking note of. On the basis of this I would expect to see more of Gladstone in the future.
Unfortunately, for all the praise I’ve just heaped onto the opening sequences, and of Gladstone’s performance, the rest of the film, as I’ve said, doesn’t quite deliver on that set-up or that promise.
It winds up ultimately feeling somewhat aimless once we get into the school. Sharon gives a troubled student a ride and then comes to his aid again when the class turn on him, but none of it seems to amount to anything of much note. I’m not sure if I missed the point, perhaps I did, but there’s something lacking to the final two thirds, I felt.
It’s competently made and still worth a watch, but it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that Sharon, a character so brilliantly drawn in those opening moments, doesn’t actually move much throughout the course of the story. She has no arc, so far as I can see, and the film essentially boils down to be a general snapshot of her life rather than an important point in the life of the character.
It’s a shame, because the filmmaking on display (and not just the stuff in that opening scene) is really great. I was left feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the time the credits rolled though, as I could not help but expect something so much more from a film that gripped me so thoroughly within the first couple of minutes.
It looks beautiful, with its minimalist approach to composition and color playing wonderfully into the pacing and the overall feel of the piece. Tremblay as a director is more that capable of telling a story visually, and she obviously has something interesting to say, even if I didn’t quite get it. Maybe she just needs more time to say it?
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