SXSW 2018: Pet Names
The indie comedy-drama is a well-worn genre, and many films fitting that description struggle to find something to carve out their own identity. That is not the case with Carol Brandt’s clever and involving third feature, Pet Names.
The movie centers around Leigh (Meredith Johnston, who also wrote the film), a 20-something who had to drop out of grad school to take care of her ailing mother. While Leigh is clearly a caring and affectionate daughter, she is understandably feeling stuck in this situation. She sleeps in her mother’s bed, barely leaves the house, and stays in her pajamas most days. As she beings to push herself out of this physically and emotionally straining routine, she runs into her ex-boyfriend Cam (Rene Cruz) on several occasions. She had planned a camping trip with her mother who still insists she should go. Not wanting to go alone she randomly invites Cam to tag along. Throughout the rest of the film, it slowly becomes clear what drew these two together and, more importantly, what pulled them apart.
This description may suggest Pet Names is a dour affair but, in fact, quite the opposite is true. The script from Johnston is often very funny and all of that humor comes, as it should, naturally from character. The film was based in part on true events, which results in characters that - as cliché as this may sound - behave and feel like real people.
During the trip, Leigh and Cam begin to reignite their intense relationship. It starts with fun aided by drinking too much and taking mushrooms, until old wounds start to reopen. Johnston and Cruz do very good work balancing the charm and the flaws of their characters. Johnston is an especially gifted and natural talent in front of the camera. While a lesser film might pick a side, Brandt and Johnston are careful to ensure that these two just come across as beautifully flawed humans.
Director Carol Brandt has a remarkable handle on character and a striking eye for visual storytelling. Subtle gestures, such as Leigh’s Mom stroking her hair or Leigh tracing her finger along Cam’s back, speak volumes. Early in the film, Brandt shows in just a few shots how routine Leigh administering chemotherapy to her mom has become, and just how taxing it is on both of them. She’s also not afraid to focus on moments of raw vulnerability, letting the moments of joy and sadness breathe. And the lovely photography by Dana Shihadah gives the whole picture a warm and delicate glow.
In some ways, Pet Names feels like a millennial version of one of Richard Linklater’s Before films. But to say it’s emulating those films would be taking away from Brandt’s unique and impressive vision. The film isn’t perfect, for example it becomes unfocused briefly in the second act as it struggles to balance its themes, but none of its flaws are distracting or debilitating. I very much look forward to seeing where both Brandt and Johnston’s careers go from here, as both are voices that should be heard.