Danny's Girl Short Film Review Sundance 2020

Director: Emily Wilson
Section: Midnight Shorts Program

The Sundance “Midnight Shorts” section is the stuff of nightmares. And I mean that in the nicest way possible. It’s the kind of late-night section that’s designed to send exhausted all-day attendees home on an imaginary fire-breathing horse that turns the Utah winter into a blood-soaked ice cube for its daily barley-drinking session. In short, it is both a cold blast to the face and a hot jumpstart to the guts. It’s necessary. The titles selected are so left-of-field and consciously morbid that it appals – and simultaneously tickles – the adventurous viewer into sadistic submission.

For example, the Jury winner in 2016 was a three-minute NSFW short called The Procedure. It depicted a random man who, after being drugged in broad daylight, wakes up captive in one of those shady surgical rooms that screams gore and limb-snapping perversions. His eyes are clamped wide open, his hands and legs strapped into the metal bed. Out of nowhere, the expertly edited sequence reveals an unidentified human body being lowered from the ceiling slowly and tantalisingly in such a way that its bare bottom – explicitly featuring the valley where the sun don’t shine – hangs within inches of his screaming face. You expect the very worst. The camera moves closer. You observe the…orifice. It throbs with horrible promise. A tiny fart ensues, the body is pulled back up, the startled man is unshackled, he climbs out a window and walks away. The end. That Sundance actually rewarded this wickedly vile manifestation of a cinematic anti-climax only adds to the midnight legend. It feels like a joke so distasteful that you can’t help but applaud.

The actors are simultaneously pathetic and poignant. In another film, dismemberment and abuse might have been par for the course. Everything we’ve ever known about psychological thrillers begs them to achieve this tragedy. But instead, they find acceptance and coherence in the most depraved circumstances. They find light in the last shade of darkness.  

In that sense, Emily Wilson’s Danny’s Girl – a 13-minute short having its World Premiere in this year’s section – is a tame beast. At least audacity-wise: Two online lovers, 35-year-old Danny (Danny Dikel) and an attractive Cleo (Remy Bennett), meet for the first time. Danny discovers something shocking in her luggage, an image that made me struggle to keep my dinner down. Danny, however, can’t keep his lunch down. Back home, Cleo finds out that Danny knows, their encounter makes plane crashes look safer than online dating – and the movie goes from strange to warped. But there’s something about Danny’s Girl that separates it from the usual midnight crowd. The protagonists are social misfits: he is an awkward virgin, she is an unhinged romantic. They are sad, sad adults for whom even the ultimate “worst-case scenario” isn’t enough to suppress a deep-rooted and toxic loneliness.

The short in fact uses twisted humour and satirical sickness to – when we least expect it – shine a light on a surprisingly tender tale of two alarmingly isolated souls. Danny and Cleo are so disconnected from reality that only a sense of shared delusion connects them. They are so abandoned that any situation – anything that requires intimacy of any degree – will do. The actors are simultaneously pathetic and poignant. In another film, dismemberment and abuse might have been par for the course. Everything we’ve ever known about psychological thrillers begs them to achieve this tragedy. But instead, they find acceptance and coherence in the most depraved circumstances. They find light in the last shade of darkness.

The ‘midnight short’ treatment works well as a garb to protect a tale of dysfunctional love and belated togetherness. The (whimsically pictured) climax of two bodies offers up the perfect anti-climax to a narrative that once threatened to explode into sinister pieces. This mockery of expectations makes Danny’s Girl a weirdly humane companion piece to The Procedure. Only, its whimper of an ending is literally life-affirming.

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