Reviews Short Narrative

People Who Pretend to be Crows in Their Spare Time (2019) – 4.5 stars

Director: Will Priddis

Writers: Will Priddis & Harry Oldroyd

Cast: Vincent Oblyschuk, Gabriel Worsley, Kym Cox, Sebastien Black

Running time: 10mins

Many of our recent reviews on Indy Film Library have pointed to one of the great pit-falls of filmmaking: biting off more than you can chew. Whether it be down to inexperience, over-ambition or over-confidence, many an artist has been brought down by their refusal to streamline an idea to fit with the resource restraints of independent cinema – subsequently burying one or two polished ideas under a stream of half-baked whims.   

To the uninitiated walking into People Who Pretend to be Crows in Their Spare Time, it might seem like this is going to be one of those films – and indeed it might have been, but for the fact that this is a Will Priddis film. A mercurial talent who does not seem wedded to any particular genre, previous efforts covered by Indy Film Library have seen Priddis take to the disparate genres of political documentary and gothic horror, and handle himself impeccably on both occasions. In this case, he and co-writer Harry Oldroyd serve up a bitter-sweet dramedy that seems to defy gravity.

Managing to wrestle familial tragedy, farcical comedy and complex mythological symbolism into a coherent and engaging is a big ask for even the most established filmmakers – especially when the vessel they are to co-habit is less than 10 minutes long. Perhaps the most crucial element of People Who Pretend to be Crows in Their Spare Time’s alchemy is that while it tackles these elements, it never loses sight of developing a central relationship between the audience and its protagonist.

We first join Rich (Vincent Oblyschuk), a greying, middle-aged man, amid the fracas of a strange ritual: a murder of would-be-crows are leaping about, flapping their out-stretched arms, cawing frantically at each other in the main hall of a community centre. From our outside perspective, it is a bizarre, comical scene; one which it would be easy to look down upon as some kind of self-absorbed health fad which its posturing proponents absolutely swear by – mistaken as some kind of squawking, befeathered yoga.

It soon becomes apparent there is more to what we are seeing than the vanity of the middle-class self-care, however. A bell sounds, and the birds suddenly transform back into their buttoned-down human forms – not a phone in sight with which anyone might post boastful post-murder pictures on social media. Instead, the quiet and dour collective shuffle slowly to the exit, or awkwardly mill around a table of assorted biscuits, fumbling for something, anything to say to their fellow Corvidae.

Because of the strange world we find ourselves in, Oblyschuk’s performance is central to carrying us along for the ride – and he is pitch-perfect throughout. In this opening scene, in particular, he exudes an awkward but earnest charm, as he patiently tries to make small talk with the removed Jeff (Sebastien Black). Jeff seems determined to keep Rich at arms-length for some reason, deflecting conversation about Rich’s son attending the next gathering by instead grumbling about the selection of snacks. In a different film, this might cue up some kind of snarky rivalry between the two, trading barbs over Selection Boxes throughout the story, but Rich’s determined amiability shows us there is another layer to Jeff we probably aren’t privy to yet.

This is further underlined by the film’s savvy adoption of mythology to build its overarching point. The symbolism of the crow is more complex than most surface interpretations would suggest – while it is most commonly known as a symbol of death now, the crow has also been a signifier of intelligence, flexibility, and possibly most importantly: change. Priddis and Oldroyd’s script sees crows deployed along each of those lines, with Rich enigmatically telling his son “it’s a metaphor” to explain his group’s seemingly strange double-life.

Sam (Gabriel Worsley) is highly resistant to his father’s recommendation that he also join the avian support group – and the rest of the film focuses on mending the pair’s fractured relationship in the wake of a tragic bereavement. Their relationship is probably the one element of the film which does demand more space, and with such little room for manoeuvre, a lot of Worsley’s dialogue seems forced; not for lack of ability as an actor, but because he has to go from 0 to 60 in emotions in the course of a 30-second conversation. While it is never completely fleshed out, Sam seems to blame Rich at least partially for the death that has rocked their family – and as this is something his father doesn’t take him to task for, he also seems to have blamed himself.

The unconventional methods Rich is working through that toxic sense of guilt in his grieving process seem to rile Sam further – and he struggles to move beyond the outside perspective the audience came to the film with. Acting like a crow to cope with trauma seems ridiculous when viewed from the normative position that we should each deal with our sadness in a quiet, compartmentalised and individual way. In an atomised society, if we do present a public front of being ‘normal’ as quickly as possible, we are taught from birth that we will be left behind.

In this context, we box up our feelings in order to get straight back to being ‘value-adding’ members in capitalism’s daily churn – while becoming distrustful or even hostile towards ideas of collective support, or abstract rituals which do not appear to have a material product. If there is really something that is ridiculous, it is that attitude to grief – not spending an hour pecking and cawing with a flock, “letting it all out” – and the true brilliance of People Who Pretend to be Crows in Their Spare Time is that it utterly skewers that belief by deploying such an outlandish device.

As all the elements of the story come to a head, the film manages to deliver something truly beautiful. It emits an aching familial warmth – leaving us grinning uncontrollably – while refusing to give us closure. Not everything is OK, and things will continue to change throughout our lives, but we each possess the intelligence and flexibility to seek help when they do, and to adapt to move forward together.

People Who Pretend to be Crows in Their Spare Time stands as a testament to the skills of its creators. Built with patience and care, it crafts a world of relatable characters, before using that to prompt frank and healthy introspection of the audience’s attitudes toward grief. While it has been noted that there still is some small room for improvement here – that is only in the sense that this story begs a feature-length outing, in which it has the space to further unpack the lives of its beguiling personalities.

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