A group of co-workers get together to test the ecology of the local stream, and pick up trash and debris in the surrounding woods. As their day goes along, it is revealed that one of them, Polly (Giovanna Christopher), has recently been fired. As some of the group gossip about this development, Polly picks up trash in the woods with Earl (Ed Scutt) who, hearing her financial plight, offers to give her some money to help her out for a few days.
By the time Dan Bauman’s short film, Testing the Stream, wraps up, we know why Polly was fired, and based on other little bits of dialogue, can piece together what her job actually was, and thus where the rest of her co-workers are employed. However, much of the short running time is spent confused about what is going on, or its relevance.
Some of this is technical, as the audio, particularly early on near the stream, is hard to understand. Some of it is just flat out not in the film. The vague establishment of context based on casual conversation makes sense in a realistic way; we tend not to go on an expository tear with people we see everyday at work, or know well. However, it doesn’t make it easy for the audience to understand as we follow along, and when the final lines of dialogue come, the moment of revelatory power that the film hopes you appreciate is less impactful for it. By the time you get to the end of the film, you can’t but feel like you’ve missed something, because the prevailing feeling is one of “And? All that, for this?”
Also dulling the impact of the dialogue, and thus the narrative developments, is the acting in the film. The delivery of many a line feels stilted, which contradicts the choice to go with a more realistic development of plot via casual conversation. Some actors do better than others, but the film can’t help but feel unnatural and awkward overall.
All that said, despite its flaws, you can see the intentions and understand many of the choices; the filmmaking instincts are there, if rough and unpolished. The editing is mostly sound, though it could all use some tightening up. I like my composition a little more creative, but the film doesn’t do a bad job in that arena at all. The film has its pluses, and isn’t a complete trainwreck.
In the end, I’d suggest that if a filmmaker wants to go the route of building context via conversation, make sure the technical side of things is top notch so that the audience can easily hear and follow along. If the context is to remain vague on purpose, or you want the audience in the dark on the narrative, then give them performances that can help them care to carry them through and over the vagueness, which quickly lends itself to apathy if left unchecked. Testing the Stream seems to have good instincts, but the execution isn’t entirely there.
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