Reviews Short Narrative

Mankind’s Superpower (2018) – 2.5 stars

Director: Christopher Beauchamp

Writer: Christopher Beauchamp

Cast: Christopher Beauchamp, Dylan Taylor, Charlotte Behler, Dylan Goecke

Running time: 21mins

So here we are, finally, in Year Two of the Indy Film Library project. We hosted our first annual screening in Amsterdam at the start of the month, and announced the winners, based on the reviews give out by our website over the last 12 months. It’s been an amazing ride, and I couldn’t be happier with how we are positioned going into our new season, as submissions are once again open.

One of the things I am most excited about this year is getting the chance to see how our initial cohort of filmmakers learns from the feedback we have provided. With that in mind, I can’t think of a better way to start our new year’s cycle than with Christopher Beauchamp’s second film submitted to Indy Film Library: Mankind’s Superpower.

I have to admit, when I first saw I was set to evaluate a second film from Beauchamp, I was dreading it. His first film, Light, was an example of the kind of film most critics dread; emotionally earnest, vulnerable, authentic and yet inescapably technically incompetent.

An honest filmmaker who openly wears their heart on their sleeve is such a rare and precious thing which should always be commended. However, it also means that having to inform them their film doesn’t make the grade because the audio seems to have been recorded “in the drum of an empty washing machine”, or that the make-up makes an actor’s face “seem as though it has been run through the absurd MEanderthal app” feels like stamping on a sack filled with day-old puppies.

Fortunately for me – and my immortal soul when it reaches the pearly gates – I won’t need to break out my whelp-stained size nines on this occasion. While Mankind’s Superpower is still a long way from the kind of professional polish needed to compete at film festivals, it is a marked improvement on Light, painting a much brighter picture of Beauchamp’s potential as a Director.

As mentioned, there are still some excessively rough edges on display here. The opening six minutes consist almost entirely of drone shots of a high school sports field, and drawn out shots of the protagonist wandering deserted areas in silence. Text has told us Tony (Beauchamp himself) is afraid people will not like his “superpower” when he finally reveals it to the world – and for a fifth of the film we are left to wonder if this power might simply be the ability to manifest incidental stock-music to accompany his daily routine. The pacing of the film still needs work then, one of several unwelcome consistencies with Light.

Used appropriately, drawn-out and patient sequences can be used to ratchet up tension or place audiences in discomfort – for example, in Hunger, at one point the camera spends a solid five minutes showing the prison cleaner sweeping a corridor from one end to the other – torturing us with just a sniff of the excruciating tedium endured by the political prisoners who are the subject of the film. Unfortunately, Mankind’s Superpower’s opening sequence is not this kind of ‘drawn out’, rather it have the same meandering energy B-movie Directors deploy to pad out ‘90 minute’ features; coming across more Neil Breen than Steve McQueen.

Luckily, the sixth minute marks a sudden and shocking change in pace and style. Tony witnesses the brutal assault of a young woman in the school parking lot. A larger man cracks a punch across her face in a well-executed stunt, which is coupled with a suitably meaty sound-effect, before our ears are filled with ringing. The sequence is executed to near perfection – and serves as a disturbing yet effective way to underwrite the film’s important message, ahead of its dissemination.

Following the attack, Tony visits his friend James (Dylan Taylor), in a sincere yet rather clumsy attempt to get the film’s key theme across; the idea that speaking up in the face of hatred is the titular superpower Tony – and indeed all of humanity – is endowed with. As with Light, the dialogue is heart-felt, but often totally ham-fisted; it leaves nothing to the audience’s interpretation, instead seemingly completing a check-list marked ‘the right thing to say’ rather than behaving as back-and-forth discussion really does.

At the same time, another hang-over from Light is that Beauchamp seems intimidated by the need to direct his cast. In many cases, you get what you pay for, so it would be unreasonable to expect a student project to cast Daniel Day-Lewis as a side-character – but as in Light, James comes across as though he cannot stand Tony, despite apparently being a dear friend.

Tony clearly needs some good advice in the wake of a major trauma, but his friend doesn’t so much as look up from his computer for the first minute of their discussion, and when he does there is little warmth in his approach, or indeed his distant style of hugging. Meanwhile the delivery of his lines literally sounds as though it is being read from the script – and for the first time. At the very least, a second take was needed, following some friendly advice on the need to try not to take a deep breath between each sentence.

If Beauchamp is going to take his films to another level, the direction he offers his co-stars simply has to become more comprehensive. Thankfully, once again, Beauchamp’s own performance is something of a saving grace for the film.

One particular scene deserving of praise comes following his friend’s advice on “using the voice God gave you.” Tony goes home, and silently stares into the mirror – a simple device often deployed in cinema to show a character struggling with his sense of self, but deceptive in its simplicity. The camera takes the place of the mirror, and as Beauchamp gazes out at us, we see every thought and feeling flash across his face.

In this paradoxically wordless moment, we take a powerful emotional journey through the thoughts and feelings of Tony. In a way similar to the iconic final scene from The Long Good Friday, the protracted shot allows us to follow every thought and feeling move across his face, as every wince and subtle twitch demonstrates a human mind retracing its steps, wondering what it might have done differently. This is the kind of drawn-out scene that Beauchamp should build upon in future projects – it shows a glimpse of a filmmaker with that Holy Grail of a combination; having something to say, and the means to say it – and as the scene plays out it is hard not to well up along with Tony at that prospect alone.

Mankind’s Superpower looks to make an important, if heavy-handed point in a time when hatred and persecution once again seem to be becoming the political norm. It suffers from some sloppy scripting and unimaginative soundtrack, as well as its actors seemingly having been left to their own devices with its clunky dialogue, but had enough glimmers of hope to say this is a better indicator of who the Director might be, as a filmmaker. Christopher Beauchamp remains a rough diamond – but this shows that with a little refinement, the end product could well be a film that sparkles with both style and substance.

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