Reviews Short Narrative

Disconnected (2020) – 4.5 stars

Director: Nard van Vrijaldenhoven

Writer: Nard van Vrijaldenhoven

Cast: Jørgen Rudshaug, Guus Hoogeboom, Bas van der Rhee, Bram Wildevuur

Running time: 25mins

Of all the tropes to pick for a 25-minute short film, the simultaneous arc has to be one of the hardest to pull off. A story featuring two or more characters in different locations, undertaking their own journeys concurrently, is a big challenge for filmmakers. There is a need to not only do justice to each story, but also find enough space while juggling narratives to demonstrate who these characters are – how they contrast or complement each other – before finding a believable and satisfying way of having them cross paths.

Nard van Vrijaldenhoven neatly sidesteps some of this complexity with the decision to totally ignore this last detail. Viewers are typically conditioned to assume the stories on display in his film will converge, making it a bold choice to purposely frustrate such expectations. Even in a film called Disconnected, viewers (including myself) will probably spend a good portion of proceedings trying to figure out how and when the twist comes, and we discover these two stories were interwoven all along. This eventually proves to be a ballsy double-bluff.

Disconnected follows Ola (Jørgen Rudshaug) and Quint (Guus Hoogeboom), two apparently different young men living contrasting lives. Ola is portrayed as mature when it comes to building his career – he is planning to celebrate with a colleague after winning a promotion – and responsible when it comes to his social responsibilities – he cancels those plans when it falls to him to organise his father’s funeral. Quint meanwhile is perpetually crashing on a couch in Amsterdam, seemingly disinterested in finding work, and ambivalent to his friends’ frustrations as he contributes nothing to their material situation. They implore him to doe iets, and initially we might agree with them, but as we learn more about both characters, being expected to do something seems less and less of a fix-all.

Both actors give fine performances – subtly working with Van Vrijaldenhoven’s script to peel back the layers of their respective characters. Eventually, this patient process reveals that beneath the circus, both are fraught with fears and frustrations, and that while they are not going to meet, there is something else which binds them together.

Quint seems blissfully oblivious to his friends and their concerns, while coasting off the back of their hard work, but we gradually learn his ‘inaction’ is rooted in a fear of joining their stage of life. During a party, a series of tedious interactions, in which acquaintances offer up small-talk of their dull graduate positions in ‘the adult world,’ he flees the nightmarish monotony that awaits him to the solace of mind-altering drugs.

Ola meanwhile would conventionally be considered to have his life ‘together,’ because he is seriously committed to selling his labour to a business. He is dedicated enough that he seems to be going places within the company – he has been rewarded with a higher rank, and a bigger wage. However, the cost of this route soon becomes clear, as the sudden loss of Ola’s father illustrates how isolated he is. Marooned in the secluded lodge his father once called home, Ola is surrounded by reminders of a part of one of the people he lost connection with to chase his new life – including the well-worn toothbrush still in his late parent’s bathroom. At the same time, there is nobody in his life to reach out to anymore – eventually leading to him dialling an ex from over two years ago, in a bout of late-night desperation. He gets the answerphone.

Credit must go to Van Vrijaldenhoven for helping to construct these two stories in both a coherent and emotionally effective manner. Key to it all is the sharp and decisive editing of Coen Hagenaars, who matches the peaks and troughs in each life impeccably. At the same time, Thomas Leur’s cinematography captures the epic skylines and beautiful scenery of both locales, while managing to contrast them with frenetic, claustrophobic closeups of our two leads, as the walls seemingly close in on them. And then there is Joris Saaltink’s score – an ambient hum which builds steadily to a frantic synthetic alarm, underlining the pressures leading the character to come apart at the seams.  

As a result of all this, here we have a beautifully crafted, torturous illustration of the choice many of us are confronted by as we exit our youth. It is a choice many graduates and school leavers from ages 16 and on are currently facing as results-season draws to a conclusion. You can knuckle down and earn a wage as economic norms dictate, but if you do, you will probably be expected to sacrifice the social behaviours which have given your developing psyche any semblance of stability in an otherwise chaotic and uncaring world.

As such, the fact the two individuals never cross paths is not especially important. In fact, had they done so, it might have seemed a rather superficial way of showing us they have something in common – while undermining the idea that we can share situations with people we have never met, or even been in the same country as before.

Instead, the film hints at a long-neglected idea that many people have forgotten in our increasingly atomised modern life – we are part of a community which goes beyond life choices, or constructed surface level identities. Many of our anxieties and regrets have a common cause – our class relations to capital – and while modern soothsayers of wellness and mindfulness might encourage both Ola and Quint to look for individual causes and remedies to their respective issues, they will not meaningfully improve their lives unless they can look beyond their immediate condition.

A 40+ hour week is never going to be conducive to a fulfilled human existence – and no amount of ‘self-improvement’ will change that. Instead, millions of people represented by these apparently opposite individuals will need to come together, in spite of their personal or geographical differences, to change things.

One minor note before I conclude. Depending on your reading of the final moments of the film, the cliff-hanger it seems to be leading into could arguably undermine all of this, as Ola approaches a faceless figure amid a snowy forest. Whether or not it is someone from the story might well never be addressed – in which case, like the ambiguous ending of Quadrophenia, it doesn’t really matter. However, the fact the film seems to build toward this moment as a narrative crescendo makes it seem as though it is begging for a sequel – where our protagonists might well meet. As a standalone work, Disconnected would probably suffer for that. With that being said though, if this were to become a tightly produced drama or thriller, it would be something that would undoubtedly grace my Netflix watchlist in the years to come.

That aside, on the balance of things, Disconnected is a powerful, holistic attempt at summarising the waking nightmare that is young adulthood in 21st century capitalism. Its respective parts are pitch-perfect, but they are also masterfully orchestrated by Nard van Vrijaldenhoven to create a piece of art that is more than the sum of those parts. According to the submission form for this film, he is a first-time filmmaker – and on this basis, that’s something almost unbelievable. There are clearly great things to come from him, and the talented team he has surrounded himself with.

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