Reviews Short Narrative

Natalia Wolf (2021) – 3 stars

Director: Lucy Morningstar & Some Dude Named Devs

Writers: Lucy Morningstar

Cast: Lucy Morningstar & Slobodan Tarbuk

Running time: 6mins

We are often guilty of making a rod for our own backs. Nobody ever said juggling a day-job and a film criticism site with a film festival tagged onto it would be easy – but even so, with 50+ films still to evaluate from our current submissions cycle, this side-hustle looks set to be a real grind for the next couple of months.

While I often find myself rushing between deadlines which I rapidly resent myself for as the ensuing slog pushes me to breaking point, however, my schedule still has nothing on the huge undertaking Lucy Morningstar handed herself at the turn of the year. Filmmakers attempting to make a conspiracy thriller which lasts just over five-and-a-half minutes with a shoestring budget are biting off more than they can chew at the best of times – but to do so in the middle of a global pandemic takes a special kind of drive.

Was the task a little more than the writer/assistant director/editor/composer could handle? Sadly yes. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t examples of ingenuity or craft here worthy of commendation – or that I didn’t have a damn good time while watching it.

First and foremost – plotting a film of any kind during the current Covid-19 outbreak potentially places both cast and crew at risk of infection. What Morningstar and director Some Dude Named Devs (that’s his credit, take it or leave it) managed to do to their credit, is to engineer a believable story where none of the on-screen presences need to make contact with each other – something which is especially important considering the LA lifestyle no doubt means the cast and crew have to maintain other lines of employment until they break through, and their other employers may well have shoddy sick-pay policies.

At the same time, the camera work of Devs deserves praise for its use of the natural lighting in the remote streets and deserted stretches of beach the film takes place in. In lieu of a more forgiving run-time, with extra room to build atmosphere, this ability to use the surroundings to construct a mood are essential. Morningstar meanwhile is credible as the breathless lead, Natalia Wolf. Her narration of the unfolding events is what ties things together – and her delivery of her lines is weighty without adopting the accusatory lilt that the overtly conspiratorial dialogue is prone to draw from lesser actors.

With that being said, the scripting of the film does leave a lot to be desired. While there are a lot of lofty concepts like truth and justice bandied about, there is precious little meat to the plot. Wolf is a former government agent of some kind, running from a fellow investigator who believes her to have committed some nameless atrocity for which she says she has been framed. However, while he eventually sees evidence that apparently acquits her, we neither see the document in question, or know what she is supposedly being fitted up for – meaning there is no sense of relief when our protagonist is cleared.

In terms of the performance of Slobodan Tarbuk as Wolf’s former colleague-turned-pursuer, the kindest thing I could say is that his facial expressions make up for the ambiguous trill of his vocal delivery. Ambiguity is something which is also present in terms of the film’s overall intent, and perhaps that rubbed off on his performance, because at various points the framing and execution of key moments means it is unclear whether this is indeed a serious thriller, or the trailer for spy-caper spoof.

At one point, Tarbuk states, “I think I got eyes on her,” before we cut to a shot of Morningstar crouched alone in an empty field. This kind of hapless detection is, we must deduce, the only credible reason why our protagonist has supposedly survived on the lamb for so long. Despite her assertion that she knows the horrible truth of the system, and thanks to her time as part of it apparently has the skills to avoid capture before telling the world, all we get from her is pratfall ineptitude.

Apart from the fact she continues to crouch, hood up, in the middle of deserted locations across LA, she also manages to bumble her way into putting her foot through the frozen surface of a pond, and drop the one document which proves her innocence while sitting and taking a breather – and not noticing. At first, it was so clear she should have realised she had dropped it that I wondered if it was a deliberate attempt to appeal to the agent pursuing her when he inevitably found it – which is what happens, but apparently unintentionally.

This gives Wolf a kind of Clouseau-esque essence, where she succeeds in spite of her own incompetence. I should note, that is probably something would have given full marks, if it had been intentional. Unfortunately, there are far too few indications of that from the filmmakers. There are not nearly enough moments of levity or contradiction for that – for example, syncing up Wolf waxing lyrical about her supposed prowess just as she manages to go shin-deep in an icy pond, or as she ‘conceals’ herself in the middle of a deserted park by raising her hood, would have been a beautifully realised punch-line.

Much like its eponymous protagonist, in spite of its flaws, Natalia Wolf does kind of succeed. Maybe it doesn’t succeed along the lines it set out to, but there are things here which honestly raised my mood ten-fold. I appreciate this might sound utterly insincere, but I promise you that I mean this from the heart, there is potential here; if the filmmakers might re-evaluate what they are trying to do – or if it was really meant to be a comedy, to make that more overt – they might just breathe new life into this project.

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