Step Right Up

By Benjamin Bee | Drama
A man's ex-wife cancels their son's birthday party. So he proceeds with the clown.

Dan is divorced from his ex-wife Liz, who has custody of their son John. When she cancels Dan’s party for John’s 8th birthday after a mysterious paternal transgression, Dan decides to proceed with the the one person who turns up as planned: the clown.

Together they decide to bring Dan’s present to his son, setting up a potentially difficult encounter with Liz and her new boyfriend. But getting to John proves more difficult than expected, putting Dan into a sticky situation that forces him to hear some difficult things — but also gives him the impetus to be the dad he knows he can be.

Writer-director Benjamin Bee’s warm-hearted, humane dramedy is about how the vast and powerful love of a parent for their child, and how a parent can grow in service to that all-encompassing feeling and commitment. Anchored in performances that find a delicate balance between melancholy and eccentricity, the storytelling is marked by a genuine affection for its characters and a stoic acceptance of their foibles. Finding that balance, indeed, is part of the film’s humble wisdom.

Actors Dan Mersh, who plays the father, and Toby Williams as goofy sidekick Alex, offer deeply funny and relatable performances. There’s humor in their self-deprecation and how they regard their dilemmas — and from the fact that Williams spends the film in a clown costume. They play off one another beautifully, bouncing lines back and forth with a unique rhythm. But they keep the emotions and jokes muted, giving the sense of a resignation.

The story and language are contemporary in sensibility and feel, which forms a contrast to the stately, almost old-fashioned style of camerawork. Shot in luminous black-and-white, the visual approach eschews a perhaps more obvious doc-like naturalism or kinetic expressionism that characterize much contemporary filmmaking.

Instead, the seemingly simple shots and editing actually give viewers space to let the characters’ performances and dialogue sink in, revealing subtleties that a more overt visual style would lose and giving it a classicism that feels both absurd and reflective. It also offers an interesting frame to the almost farcical last part of the film, which finds Dan literally stuck in a difficult place.

A more conventional comedy would play up the awkwardness of Dan’s situation and perhaps pile on the obstacles for hilarity. But in “Step Right Up” — which was long-listed for the BAFTA Award for Best Short Film — it’s used as a moment of small yet significant revelation, where Dan hears, perhaps for the first time, another perspective on why his family splintered. His reaction flickers between outrage and disbelief, but there are also glimmers of realization that are beautifully underplayed but quietly affecting. Coming from that moment, it makes his birthday gesture to his son all the more sweet — and makes for a heartwarming ending that is genuinely earned, both for Dan and for the audience.

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