By Travis Trombley
I think you’ll be glad you did. If you haven't seen it yet, you can watch it below.
Following two other award-winning shorts made for local film contests, Small Fish marks WSF’s most ambitious project yet. It’s a single-set drama in the basement shop of a man named Keeps, an easy-going, flannel-wearing salesman with a knack for helping people find whatever they need, just when they need it. It’s an ideal setting for a charming story that links human struggles to simple objects. Add in a meticulously detailed set, clever camera work, and a moving soundtrack, and you get a venture that’s well worth taking 15 minutes to watch.
Driven by the premise that a hole-in-the-wall shop attracts people in need, Small Fish - co-directed by producer Jake Weber and Camron Combs - is about little human triumphs in the form of little human decisions. The protagonist, Seb - played by David Pierce Anderson - enters Keeps’ shop to charge his phone before heading off to wherever he’s in a rush to get to. He’s constantly fondling a guitar pick in his fingers, but when asked about it, he dodges the question. While waiting on his phone, he interacts with a few other patrons - a homeless man in need of a jacket and some genuine human kindness, and a soon-to-be fiance who ducked away for an emergency moment of encouragement before her boyfriend popped the question.
The conceit, for the most part, is that when someone needs a certain thing, and I use such a vague term intentionally, that physical need provides a pathway towards overcoming an emotional need. For example, Sean, the aforementioned homeless man, comes in looking for a jacket, and he gets one, but he also gets a free sandwich and a place to wait out a storm; later he gives what’s left of the sandwich away to Ashley, the young lady running from her engagement, before she returns to her boyfriend. He pays forward the kindness shown to him - it’s growth.
Keeps - played by WSF veteran Barbaro Tran Suarez - facilitates this growth by providing the object component, and - thankfully - that’s all he does. He contributes a knowing smile and a warm welcome, but doesn’t preach. This allows the film to keep its emotional impact rooted in the camera and character work rather than having to directly deliver the message through dialogue. This is a marked sign of improvement following Roadmap, which relied a bit too heavily on platitudes delivered via voiceover to propel the narrative. Such a technique worked well enough given the context of that film, but I was still happy to see the team push themselves to rely more on natural dialogue here.
This being a film largely about the relationship between people and things, it bears mentioning that the camera - which speaks in crisp 4K here - loves the various items in the shop as much as it does the actors who manipulate them. Miscellaneous paraphernalia pervade every shot of the film. A bell, a jacket, a guitar, a sandwich, some porcelain piggy banks, an old baseball mitt, and various other knick-knacks all get their due close-ups, usually marking transitions in the narrative with a well placed rack focus. The set design highlights these trifles with strands of white Christmas lights woven through the shelves, both lending the set its boutique-ish vibe and guiding the viewer’s gaze from item to item. It all comes together in a way that emphasizes the narrative link between people and their things.
While I’m far from able to meaningfully comment on acting, I will say that compared to WSF’s past work, the delivery here is as good as ever, if not better. Doubtlessly that’s due, at least in part, to the film’s extended filming period (more prep time and a lack of pressure from a 24 or 48 hour deadline). For example, while Suarez handled it admirably given the parameters of the contest, Voyager's script asked his professor character to string together quite a bit of technical physics jargon, and there were a few moments where the delivery of that jargon slipped into stilted recitation. There’s no such weakness here. Almost every line feels comfortable and purposeful, which says something for a group of budding amateurs.
Beyond the story, set, and actors, the last star that demands recognition here is the music. The original score - composed entirely by Robbie Carnacchi - beautifully adds both weight and momentum to the film’s slower moments. Reliant on an acoustic guitar and piano (accompanied by some occasional cello), the soundtrack guides the emotional beats, supplementing without overbearing, and always internally coherent. The melody that plays during the moments when the camera explores the store’s inventory is a standout.
Part of why this issue stands out, I think, is that the young woman - unlike the other two patrons - didn’t need a “thing.” This breaks the film’s designing principle regarding the relationship between stuff and human action. Perhaps this could have been remedied had the character Ashley taken the engagement ring from her boyfriend when she found it, then lost it, all so that when she made her decision, Keeps could provide a replacement. Her subsequent discussion of how she’d have to be honest with her fiance about the ring and her apprehensions would lend more to Seb’s arc than a repeatable line of dialogue.
This, however, is a minor quibble. And it’s not entirely alone - some sound issues about halfway through with dialogue transitions can be a twinge distracting.
But that these are the only complaints I can muster (and I had to force myself to find them on a repeat viewing) is a testament to the degree of craftsmanship by all involved. I’m happy to say that SMALL FISH is a good film. It’s not just a good story recorded on camera - it makes effective use of the medium in all its capacities, from setting and lighting to audio and music. The attention to detail is commendable.
In short, I’m excited to see what WSF does next. With three remarkable shorts already under their belt and a dedication to challenging themselves with each new undertaking, well, let’s just say I’ll be happy to say I watched them from the beginning.
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