Reviews Short Narrative

Not Going Back (2020) – 1.5 stars

Director: Emilie Lowe

Writers: Emilie Lowe

Cast: Emilie Lowe, Steve Kio

Running time: 4mins

Around an eighth of Not Going Back consists of heavy breathing over a black screen. Despite doing its best to maintain an air of mystery by literally showing us nothing at all, however, Emilie Lowe’s directorial debut remains utterly transparent.

While we might have had our heads buried in the cinematic equivalent of a burlap sack for the first 25 seconds of the film, all this serves to do is give us breathing space to calculate exactly what we are about to see. I mean, what do you expect might happen at the end of a film named Not Going Back? There’s only one conclusion that film is going to reach, and it has literally spelled it out for us in the first few moments.

To an extent, the film does execute the age old adage of “show don’t tell”; the ragged female breathing and the crackling twigs spell out the earlier story of a woman who has fled some kind of abuse, and probably at great personal risk, while her pale, bloodied face and flowing dress suggest she has been kept captive in some kind of compound. Her captivity has been against her will, and she has been subjected to all manner of horrors – horrors which aim to subjugate and exploit her rather than kill her.

In a film under five minutes, with a small budget and limited directorial experience, Lowe has the basics in place to have done something interesting yet minimalist. Had she attempted to spice up the story a little, this approach might have been commendable – but here, as with many nascent filmmakers, the technical execution only serves to prop up a plot which speaks exclusively in filmic clichés in order to shirk any kind of responsibility to do anything more complex in terms of narrative.

Illustrating this, Jenny (Emilie Lowe) sits with her back to a tree, trying desperately to compose herself; drawing a handgun level with her face as she waits for her captor to catch up. The moment the overly theatrical movement shows Jenny is armed, we know full well that the remaining three minutes are going to consist of Jenny pointing the gun at her pursuer, while they monologue about how she needs them, how she doesn’t have it in her to kill, and that she should just come on back. And the film is called NOT GOING BACK.

It’s hard to see how audiences won’t quickly shift onto auto-pilot in such a telegraphed story long before the inevitable gun-shot-cut-to-black climax, because we have all seen this film many times before. We know how it plays out – even if we hadn’t been explicitly foretold by the film’s title. Over the rest of the film, the plot does indeed manifest itself as anticipated, and as it does, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve become non-consensually chained to the world’s most boring theme-park attraction – something which is not helped by the performance of The Leader (Steve Kio). As he quite evidently reads directly from his script, he comes across as a particularly unenthused animatronic cultist aboard a dystopian version of the It’s A Small World ride.

By trotting out an infinity of amorphous tropes, offering little in the way of charm or wit in their delivery, and failing to find any space for narrative innovation, Not Going Back commits the cardinal sin of entertainment; it bores. That leads the audience into asking fatal question, which should literally never cross the mind of any viewer in the duration of a film; “why have you done this?”

Lowe’s accompanying director’s statement for Not Going Back claims the short highlights “the struggle of choice, coercion, freedom and class struggle” – all commendable themes, well worth addressing, and which engaging with could elevate even a well-trodden storyline audiences are familiar with. But these issues do not manifest themselves on any level but the fact that our lead character is a woman who is looking to escape some kind of unseen, unspoken trauma.

Instead of being some great act of button-pushing cinema then, Not Going Back has much more in common with the hundreds of straight-to-YouTube short films pumped out by amateur directors who are more concerned with quantity than quality. Those filmmakers tend to set out with the opinion that the more they put out, the more chance they have of catching a producer’s eye – and the quicker they can finalise a project, the sooner they can widen that net by beginning another one. I can assure you this is universally unsuccessful as a tactic.

Looking ahead, Emilie Lowe needs to dust herself down and collect her thoughts, before taking her time with whatever project she looks to deliver next. As mentioned earlier in this review, she has the raw materials to do better, but if she genuinely hopes to intervene in discourse surrounding class, gender, oppression or coercion, then she needs to handle those topics with the appropriate respect. Lowe cannot afford to fall back on the most standard of amateur tropes and expect to skate by, claiming there are grander themes present in her work – and while this might seem harsh to say to a young filmmaker just beginning her journey, if her work does not grow beyond this, there will be far harsher reviews to come from other critics.

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