Laila is a young actress who has to put an audition “on tape,” all in hopes of eventually booking a role. She tries to film herself using her iPhone, and enlists her mother to support her. But after being told to find a “normal job,” she enlists a friend of a friend, Ali, to help out.
Laila develops a rapport and eventually a relationship with Ali, as she continues to film audition tape after audition tape, which captures both her rising hopes and growing romance. But as she hits a wall of rejection, she begins to lose her confidence and questions herself, and her life starts to unravel.
Writer-director Elham Ehsas’s short drama is both a portrait of a young woman’s life coming apart before our eyes and a cleverly told romance. Using the series of self-taped auditions to illuminate both the pressures facing Laila as a woman of color in the media industry as well as her changing moods, thoughts and life circumstances, it tells its story using a unique narrative approach, using the casual offhand moments, throwaway comments and offscreen space to tell a emotionally involving story.
With the storytelling unfolding through a series of taped auditions, the visual frame often remains static. Yet the image never feels boring, with elements moving in and out of the stationary camera through thoughtful, clever staging. The directing choices also create visual dynamism through luminous cinematography and rich color and sound. The editing pieces together the most poignant moments captured by Laila’s phone, joined together in an engaging rhythm that allows the audience to both absorb her emotions while compelling them forward with momentum.
As Laila, actress Hiral Varsani is the centerpiece of the film, and her auditions show the gap between the stereotypes she’s often asked to bring to life as a Middle Eastern actress and her intelligent, resolutely modern and multifaceted self. The various auditions, ranging from stereotypical village wife to Shakespeare, show her remarkable emotional range and versatility. Charming, smart and funny, Laila clearly has more to offer than the roles she is up for, and feels frustrated that she can’t bring her fullest self to her life’s vocation, much less book a role. As she hits a breaking point and starts to unravel, her relationship becames a casualty, and she must either cope and move forward or risk getting stuck.
Engaging, well-written and “Humming Bird” is really a short suited for the mobile age, taking advantage of the intimacy offered by smartphones, both creatively and emotionally. Shot on an iPhone, it’s nevertheless crafted with thought and precision, and shows the artistic possibilities of mobile filmmaking. Yet despite its striking visual economy, the film still leans on the classicism of character-based storytelling, and by keeping its heart and focus firmly on Laila, it explores a full, rich emotional arc about love, creative perseverance and emotional resilience in the face of almost certain obstacles.