Phoebe is a 17-year-old girl living in West Baltimore, enduring a thoroughly toxic home life while navigating her complicated first love. As the opening narration echoes, her story focuses on her determination to never “get took” by life, always striving to have a leg up in any situation. However, what comes through this pursuit is the human vulnerability to circumstance, and how these circumstances dramatically alter not only our view on life but how we navigate the aftermath. Sadé Clacken Joseph and Krenee Tolson have crafted Finding Phoebe to be singularly personal to its titular protagonist, but also as an equally emblematic tale of a greater underexplored experience undergone by many young women in Baltimore City.
The film begins with a prologue in Phoebe’s (Tolson) past as she interacts with friends and her childhood crush Joseph (Jeremy Tardy). While this opener establishes the extensive life these two have shared by the time the plot kicks off, it also established Phoebe’s personal philosophy instilled by her mother Sharon (Jeanette Branch) and other adults in her life. This foundation directly influences the way that Phoebe interacts with Joseph, and various authority figures (such as Joseph’s mother, and her teachers), however, not all is as simple as it seems, and soon Sharon’s old boyfriend Ronnie (Javon Johnson) returns to the scene to rip open old trauma and plunge Phoebe into a tailspin.
“..Ronnie returns to the scene to rip open old trauma and plunge Phoebe into a tailspin.”
While the opener is hampered by some not-so-stellar child actors, it is easily bypassed for the entire remainder of this deft short. Arina Bleiman’s cinematography is always designed with a heavy emphasis on environmental pressures on Phoebe, utilizing frames within frames to increasingly effective results – by the end, the film feels suffocating, and I feel that is primarily the point. The craftiness of the shot composition is compounded by Ogechi Echebiri’s phenomenal editing, maintaining a relatively steady visual rhythm throughout and always expanding our awareness of space and the characters’ internal conflicts.
The film’s sound design is mostly outstanding, though some of the latter-half dialogue can be difficult to hear, and is mixed into the diegetic sound rather wonkily. But for a film that succeeds in so many other ways, these smaller detractors will often seem somewhat moot. Overall, Finding Phoebe is a strong little drama that packs a far stronger punch than its synopsis may allude.
Finding Phoebe (2019) Directed by Sadé Clacken Joseph. Written by Krenee Tolson. Starring Krenee Tolson, Jeremy Tardy, Jeanette Branch, Javon Johnson, Claire Nelson.
7 out of 10