Reviews Short Narrative

Let’s Talk About George (2021) – 3 stars

Director: Nick Nevern

Writer: Josh Witcher, Shane McCormick and Nick Nevern

Running time: 18mins

The crumbling social security infrastructure of the West has seen the mental health of its citizens long neglected. The atomisation of neo-liberal society has seen more of us become increasingly isolated in our anxiety and depression – and heightened suicide rates are a prolonged result of this.

It is probably not a shock that mental health struggles have become so prominent in independent cinema, in that context. Having worked as a screening committee member for film festivals around the world, I’ve come into contact with hundreds of shorts which tackle depression, anxiety and suicide over the years. But while at face value, this should be a good thing (the theory being that the more people talk about these things, the better the chance people will offer help to those in need, and those struggling will reach out to ask for it) I am always cautious when approaching them.

All too often, shorts on mental health have a habit of distastefully sensationalising the subject, or treating it as an easy way to escape from narrative cul-de-sacs. I have seen films about bullied children “learning to fly” in the final shots of an ill-judged melodrama, jilted lovers leap into traffic as a means of giving a ‘romance’ story closure, and substance addicts thrust kitchen knives into their own chests for the sake of shocking the audience. None of these films had any apparent concern for treating their characters with dignity, or providing commentary or solutions on mental health.

Let’s Talk About George, I am happy to report, is not in that category. There are moments where it seems about ready to lurch down that avenue – but the film’s conclusion suggests that these might even have been writers Josh Witcher, Shane McCormick and Nick Nevern overtly playing to the expectations other films have sadly instilled in us.

Directed by Nevern, the film follows George (McCormick) as he hits rock-bottom. Struggling with substance abuse and alcoholism, his partner has revoked his visitation rights for his daughter. He has exited therapy sessions, and stopped showing up to work. Sleeping through the day, he spends his nights scraping himself off the floor to attend the next house party, while his ‘friends’ sneer at his deteriorating condition.

McCormick’s delivery lives up to the earnest nature of the script – it is clearly heartfelt, if a little under-developed. For a start, many of the interactions between George and his friends are a little cookie-cutter. Alright? Yeah, fine thanks, you? Yeah, fine thanks. How’s so-and-so? Yeah, they’re alright too… It is hard to understand why any of these people are hanging onto each other. There are far too few sparks of humanity or charisma on display to justify it in any current sense – and nobody reflects on any sort of shared glory-days which they might be trying to keep alive either.

One moment where something resembling a glimmer comes into George’s eye, is when he gives his friend’s young son Ralph (Rocco McCormick) a golden chain with a crucifix. He implores the child to keep it safe for him in what seems to be a genuinely warm moment, but may have some grander significance, as Ralph’s mother Jade (Katie Jarvis) seems wary of it. Unfortunately, it is not a plot point that is investigated further, though – and that is a shame because in so little time, these characters need every humanising touch they can get.

Speaking of Katie, Jarvis puts up possibly the standout performance of the piece. In a cast where the delivery is often quite blunt, and tonally telegraphed, her performance brings a much-needed subtlety to proceedings, presenting an ambiguous take on a woman who is either distrustful or concerned for an ailing friend. While she never looks to absolve George of his past discretions, she does not seem willing to consign him to the bin of history that her other friends are keen to.

This comes to a head in the film’s climactic sequence. While George is in the toilet at a house party, Jade is with two other friends, who audibly bad-mouth him, how he smells, how he behaves. The issue is not perhaps that they speak their minds, but that they do so behind his back, as a joke. George bursts from behind the door, and rushes home. There, he contemplates ending his own life – as voicemails from partygoers play in the background. They are obnoxious, hostile, and serve to make him feel cornered by some grand inquisition.

Fortunately, a twist of fate prevents George from following through on his inclinations – just as a final voice note plays from Jade. While she can’t imagine what he must have been through, she says, nobody should have to go through it alone. It’s a crucial piece of input – and one films on this matter often fall short of providing. It’s a call to action. If you can relate to this, if you know someone in this situation, reach out to them.

With that being said, the film is still a little too light on the details of the subject it is trying to tackle. Since the mid-1990s, approximately three-quarters of all suicides in the UK have involved male victims. The rate of male suicide in Britain hit a two-decades high in the second-half of 2019. This context seems to weigh heavily on the production, but it is not something that it attempts to broach directly. Nor does it seem concerned with providing a possible explanation of why this is – or playing that out through its lead character.

The factors behind George’s deterioration are left unspoken; and while that arguably makes his character more universal, with more potential for audiences to see themselves in him, or his friends, preventions are better than cures. Films like My Name is Joe look to tackle the symptoms of mental illness and addiction, but they also ask us to face their causes, and demand a more humane world where those causes can be stamped out. Simply suggesting we can each reach out to help each other is important, but leaving it at that negates the many ways someone’s slide into desperation and depression could be barred in the first place.

With all this being said, the team behind Let’s Talk About George deserves a lot of praise. They have approached an important subject with honesty and empathy – something a great number of other filmmakers could learn from. While it might not have earned them a top score, it is the most important of starts.

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