Director: Sam Rogers
Writers: Sam Rogers & Kathleen Lee
Cast: Kathleen Lee, Harry Tseng, Maria Angelico, Isabella Giovinazzo
Running time: 52mins
Anthology storytelling is a tricky business. It can serve up opportunities for filmmakers to experiment, to test out new ideas in a short form without becoming too wedded to a particular project. But it can also result in a product that struggles for a consistent tone, and which while theoretically able to please everyone, ends up catering to no-one.
In his A History of Horror mini-series, writer and actor Mark Gatiss actually suggested that as a child, he enjoyed portmanteau horror best of all. To the attention-span of a child, it seemed “almost like the ideal horror movie” as “if you didn’t like one particular story, there would be another one along ten minutes later.” This sums up the possible rewards and risks of such a strategy: on the one hand, an eclectic series of varied shorts gets multiple shots at impressing us – but on the other, we end up becoming less invested in the overall success or failure of the work as a whole.
Presented to Indy Film Library in feature-form, Discontent is actually a series of mid-length short films from Australian director Sam Rogers and co-writer Kathleen Lee. Interspersed throughout its meandering story are some spectacular moments of vulgarity, desperation and hilarity – any one of which could have been stretched out to make a compelling film in its own right. At the same time, there are some more ominous moments, which would have worked well as part of a decidedly darker production.
The problem that Discontent faces is two-fold. It struggles to knit its two sides together; and its stop-start, disconnected form means that audiences will not be well positioned to help it fill in the gaps. What we end up with is tonal dissonance personified: a film, or series, which does not seem to know what it wants, or what it is.
The majority of the inserts seem to centre on social alienation of different kinds – and broadly Discontent is good at that. For instance, the first segment sees Sandra (played by Kathleen Lee) in the grip of a compulsive disorder, which compels her to enter strangers’ houses and steal scraps of their childhood nostalgia. She is willing to do anything to get these early birthday photos, or stick-man sketches – before sitting alone in her apartment, next to a collage of other people’s happy memories. It is a devastating image of wordless alienation, and one which deserved expanding upon – even if that meant spending more time with the hopeless Alan (Harry Tseng), who she at one point seduces in order to pocket one of his photographs.
Another segment follows Archie (Nicholas Jaquinot), a comically dislikeable loser, who is determined to find a new girlfriend, after a break-up deprives him of access to a free Netflix account. And on a similar note, there’s the story of Apple (Isabella Giovinazzo), whose Tinder date insists they do laughing-gas, and promptly wets himself. But despite both stories including some notable laughs – including one fantastic visual euphemism in particular – both kind of peter out, rather than building to a peak of their own. This seems to be because Lee and Rogers both had one eye on the final chapter of the series – Maya – and its determination to inject an unwelcome element of cosmic horror into proceedings.
It’s not that Maya – a story about an alien (Chloe Martin) posing as a young woman in order to seduce and consume humans – is bad. If it were a standalone film, I might even argue it’s the best of the six stories; a slow-burning, moodily lit story, that plays on the fears we all share in those moments where we go through that ultimate moment of vulnerability with someone new. But it is entirely at odds with almost everything that came before it.
The awkward coupling comedies from Apple and Archie that came before, or the deeply sad examination of isolation in Sandra feel as though they have been cheapened – they only occurred to position those characters in a place where they could fall prey to Maya. It does not help that her particular strand of the story only materialises in the final act, either. Perhaps if she would have been established in a first episode, before appearing in the periphery of the following stories, it might have worked better. Or at least, it would have felt less like she was just slung in at the end as a clunky way of tying otherwise disparate narrative strands together.
Even if that were the case, though, the film or series would still give off a feeling of being an anthology rather than a portmanteau of odd tales. In the moments where things don’t work, there is a very real danger that viewers will simply go onto cruise control, while waiting for something more interesting to come along in another episode. For example, the protracted episode Milly – which centres on done-to-death smartphone addiction platitudes you will be painfully familiar with if you have an aunt on Facebook – does not seem connected to the other stories, and after the experience of tuning out while waiting for a more interesting episode, viewers are possibly developing a trait which will see them miss the cues in other stories that are actually connected.
With all that being said, the filmmakers have still displayed a great deal of potential here. The cinematography (particularly in the glowing after-dark sequences) is stunning, the soundtrack is influential without becoming overbearing, and the collective work of the cast is excellent. There are moments of originality and empathy in here, as well as compelling instances of levity and dread. It just doesn’t come together as a coherent whole.
Audiences will enjoy a great deal of what Discontent has to offer; I know I did. But they will also pick up on its shortcomings more keenly due to the detached nature of those positive elements. So, like the titular character in Maya, I can’t help but feel a little empty at the end of it all.