SLAMDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2024 REVIEW! Dispelling pre-conceptions of what life is like in the margins is the remarkable feature debut Sam’s World, written and directed by Lily Lady. It starts with a close-up of non-binary Sam (Lily Lady) screaming their head off, a jarring image that we have no context for yet. This primal yell from Sam is silenced, and it is the weekend again in Brooklyn. Sam and their partner Rex (Annie Conolly) are on a walk in the park when they run into an old man (Howie Seligman) who greets Sam. He lets her know he is moving into the neighborhood as he can get more space to live in, which Sam seems happy about.
After he leaves, Rex gets upset. Rex doesn’t like to see the clients that pay Sam to have sex with them. Sam says they likes their clients and there is nothing wrong with their job. It is their work that allows Rex the freedom to develop their design work. As they get ready to hang with their friends, Sam excuses themselves to the bathroom. In the stall, they perform another pregnancy test. They don’t seem to like the results…
The margins are not as crowded as they used to be. Back in my day, they used to be packed shoulder to shoulder with the multitudes society had spat out. Nowadays, it’s a lot more sparse, as what would get you cast out then is perfectly acceptable now. My younger queer friends don’t remember a time when your preference alone would be enough to gulag you into a permanent societal fringe. So would drug use, but we finally outnumbered them in the drug war. So what is “outlaw” anymore? In this country, sex work is still illegal and stigmatized.
“In the stall, they perform another pregnancy test. They don’t seem to like the results…”
The portrayal of sex workers in cinema is usually dismissive to exploitative. Even when treated at their most sympathetic, they are usually used as canvases for all the horrors of trafficking. These are the webs of disdain that Lily Lady cuts down with the camera. A former sex worker with no filmmaking background has made a magnificent de-sensationalization of living in the shadows. Even though Sam’s main predicament is so harrowing due to its relation to their job, the job is still left at the door when it comes to their life. Lady’s script shows Sam doesn’t define herself by her work, and others shouldn’t either. It is a perspective that will be immediately contrary to the viewer, which Lady reflects on how they wrote Rex’s reactions. Lady’s lands repeated thundering blows of normalcy upon the viewer, with scene after scene of Sam acting like any other normal person.
It is Lady’s storytelling instincts that intrigue me the most. After all, it is impressive enough that a person this young without formal training or practice shoots their first feature in eight days. But I am floored by the amount of indie film DNA seems to be inside this prodigy’s methods. Their use of causal dialogue found in real life to build a realistic tableau has roots that stretch from Cassavetes to Sayles to Tarantino. The subject matter screams to be sensationalized, but other than that core flash at the beginning, Lady sends the crisis far into the background. They go about their daily life while their issues sit on the back burner.
Once again, this is a real-life thing, not a movie thing. Making movies more like real life has always been one of the great impulses driving indie pioneers. That Lady has been able to tame such a wild sector of where the likes of Angel and Vice Squad rule is a truly a Herculean feat. Another feat is their performance, a natural tour-de-force that I can only describe as no make-up make-up. It is disarming and unaffected, which isn’t easy to maintain when you are carrying the picture. Sam’s World was made by an outsider with the craft of an insider, definitely worth catching with both hands.
Sam’s World screened at the 2024 Slamdance Film Festival.
"…a magnificent de-sensationalization of living in the shadows."