For those not in the know, the site Dust plays host to science fiction short films. Occasionally a mini-series will be up, but mainly they curate short, original film works of varying quality. Aside from being an aggregator (and YouTube Channel), the people behind the Dust brand do original content of their own from time to time. The latest Dust original is the 4-minute long Occupant.
Frank (Dan O’Brien) is telling his daughter Gabriela (Caroline Jennings), a bedtime story. After he finishes, he lets Sarah (Lauran September), his significant other, know that he is very tired and ready to get some sleep. As Frank moves into the next room, he hears a strange noise outside and goes to investigate. He sees the swing on the playset swaying and creaking, yet no one else is out there. Or are they?
The beginning 20-seconds of this very brief, incredibly slight movie offer the first, but not only flaw. For reasons that must have only made sense in writer-director Peter Cilella’s mind, Gabriela slaps Frank. See, the story he was telling ends with a crocodile (or alligator) eating a bunny. She likes the ending, dark though it is, so he calls her twisted. All of that is cute enough; for those having a hard time imagining it—think of Cassie’s birthday scene in Ant-Man. Scott brings his daughter a hideous looking stuffed animal. She says, “It’s soo ugly… I love it!” Kids can, will, and absolutely should love morbid, odd, or strange things if they are so inclined.
“…the swing on the playset swaying and creaking, yet no one else is out there.”
But I digress, let’s get back to the main point. After Frank calls her twisted, Gabriela full on slaps her across the face. I am going to repeat that, in case the egregiousness and seriousness of what I just described did not come across. Gabriela physically abuses her father because he playfully teased her. This wasn’t some light jab across the shoulder or any other gesture to indicate frivolity. No, this is a full force slap onto a man’s face. Occupant is too short to properly overcome such a shocking and pointless act, in part because that is not what the movie is about. But also because it is never brought up.
More than likely, this slap is intended as playful moment. O’Brien does not even blink when it happens. But, thanks to the sound design, it comes across as a loud, vicious act of brutality. Maybe Cilella sees children as the destruction of a stable relationship and intended the slap as a visual metaphor for that. However, the more likely scenario is that sound mixer Bryn Scott Hubbard is inept at his job.
However, I was so distracted by the violent girl who lashes out over nothing to concentrate properly. I had to watch Occupant twice. My mind just kept racing with these thoughts “Did she actually slap him? No, I couldn’t have seen that correctly. If she did slap him, why in the everloving hell, did she?” So, enough about this messed up situation and the horrifying implications it has for Cilella’s view of families. How does the rest of the movie fare?
“…too short to make any statements about anything, and the characters are too ill-defined to care about.”
To be perfectly honest, the movie is boring. What precisely is going on is told in only the vaguest of terms, so there is no chance at getting into the story. The characters are defined as dad, cruel and savage daughter, and mom, so investing in these people is near impossible. It does not help matters that Cilella’s direction fails to wring any sense of atmosphere or tension out of the proceedings.
Before anyone believes that pulling off such a feat in under 5-minutes is not possible, allow me to retort. On Dust, there is a brilliant movie titled Tergo, which is 30 seconds shorter and so much more engrossing. Kiwi! (which is not on Dust) is an animated film about a kiwi bird achieving its dreams and is slightly over 3-minutes; 3 minutes and 10 seconds to be precise. It is also my second favorite short film of all time. So yes, it is entirely possible to craft a wholly unique and engaging viewing experience in such a short timeframe. The filmmakers simply failed to do so in this particular case.
At the risk of spoiling things, if you want to watch a movie with similar ideas, go ahead and view Jordan Peele’s fantastic and profound Us. Occupant is too short to make any statements about anything, and the characters are too ill-defined to care about. Couple that with the lack of finesse and the whole abusive family angle, and you are left with a movie that is dead on arrival.
Occupant (2019) Directed by Peter Cilella. Written by Peter Cilella. Starring Dan O’Brien, Caroline Jennings, Lauran September.
3 out of 10 Slaps