College student Ethan has been harassed with anonymous threats, and his sense of self and power has fractured as a result. To prove himself and boost his sense of safety he seeks out shooting lessons from a reclusive ex-militia member and survivalist.
Director Arman Cole’s dramatic short grounds an incendiary nexus of topics — gun culture, mental health and more — in a compelling coming-of-age story about a young man looking to gain a sense of power in a world that renders him helpless and fearful.
The film’s subject matter could easily fall into overbearing and didactic territory, but instead the story is rendered with a subtle, understated sense of direction, grounded in complex, powerful performances. The characters — played by Tyler Young and Dominic DeVore — are likable, sympathetic and above all human, with desires and needs that are easily understandable. When the film takes an unexpected turn, it’s both surprising but understandable, given the richly intimate acting and insightful writing.
The film delves into timely territory, offering a searing look at a subject that draws intense feelings on both sides of the issue. But by pointing a lens upon today’s issues with well-calibrated emotion and powerful storytelling, “Small Arms” accomplishes what powerful art does: it puts a mirror up to our society and challenges us to look closer at the world we make with our words and actions.
Q&A with Arman Cole
OMELETO: What made you want to tell this story or make this film? Why is it important to you?
ARMAN COLE: The original spark of the idea came from the horrific Isla Vista killings of 2014, which took place while I was in grad school at USC. A 22-year old college student, motivated by sexual frustration with women, murdered six people across the campus of UC Santa Barbara before committing suicide. I became interested in how masculine insecurity can metastasize into violence and wanted to explore these themes in a film. I was also troubled by the resurgence of far-right groups in the 2010s and thought it would be interesting to explore the intersection of toxic masculinity, gun culture and right-wing paranoia.
OMELETO: What lessons did you learn while making this film (or any others) that had a positive effect on you or the project? How did that lesson happen?
ARMAN COLE: I learned that you should spend as much time casting as is necessary to find actors you have complete faith in. I was initially told that, given the fact that I was an unknown student director, it was unlikely for me to find actors talented enough to pull off the script I’d written. I chose to stubbornly ignore that advice and spent months looking through hundreds self-tapes and sitting through dozens of auditions. Due to the outstanding work of my casting directors Brittani Ward and Dayna Polehanki, we were able to find Tyler and Dominic, both of whom nailed their auditions and showed the sort of quiet vulnerability that I felt the script demanded.
OMELETO: How did you become interested in filmmaking? What drew you to film specifically?
ARMAN COLE: As cliche as this is, it’s the truth: My dad showed me 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was about 7 or 8 years old and I became obsessed with it. A lot of it obviously went over my head at that age, but that feeling of total sensory overload seeing it for the first time was something I never forgot. I started watching as many movies as I could and started shooting little handicam videos with my friends around the neighborhood. I became convinced that I’d someday make real films.
OMELETO: What makes a film or story good or interesting to you?
ARMAN COLE: My favorite films have plausible, fully-realized characters that feel human, as well as a unique premise and unpredictable plot. They also have something to say about society as a whole.
OMELETO: How do you find your inspiration — or keep inspired when the process of getting a film made gets difficult or your energy or creativity feel sapped?
ARMAN COLE: I try to escape to nature when feeling mentally drained. Hiking, camping, road trips. I’ve worked through many creative problems by getting out of the city.
OMELETO: What films or stories have been most inspiring or influential to you, and why?
ARMAN COLE: Too many to count. The work of Lynne Ramsey, Gus Van Sant, Jeremy Saulnier and Kelly Reichardt were all major influences on this project. If I had to pick one film I’d say We Need To Talk About Kevin, which is a brilliant character study that delves into the psychology of a young killer.
OMELETO: What do you want audiences to take away from your body of work?
ARMAN COLE: I hope it gets viewers thinking about how repressed masculinity can easily turn violent, especially in an era where so many mass shooters are men. I also hope that people see it as part of the broader conversation taking place right now about guns and mental health.