Martha is a part-time actor and aspiring stand-up comedian, trying to find her place in a difficult industry and a crowded, busy city. She’s also a monster in a world where humans and monsters co-exist, yet the sensitive and insecure soul struggles to fit in with either side. She’s trying to find her footing, but assimilating into a world made for humans isn’t working out too well for her.
But after a disastrous stand-up set, Martha meets Kevin, a monster who’s proud of who he is and unafraid to reveal his horns — and offers Martha a new way of accepting herself in a cold, hostile world.
Writer-director Christopher Weekes’s magical short drama is a wonderful work of empathy, which plays its premise and builds its world lightly in service of a heartwarming story about self-acceptance, kindness and compassion.
Subtle and expressive visual effects work stands alongside muted, naturalistic cinematography and touches of comedy to evoke a world similar in feel to Spike Jonze’s work. Like Jonze’s films, this short has a similar visionary playfulness in its vision of the world and its evocation of humanity in all its awkwardness by endearingly odd, furry creatures. But “Martha” is more emotionally sincere and direct, with no ambivalence about evoking its titular character’s emotional journey, from pain to fear to hope.
Martha is voiced by actress Rose Byrne, whose soft-spoken, supple voice endows the character with plenty of charm, awkwardness and vulnerability. As a monster, she’s endowed plenty of emotional range, which contrasts with the often bigoted humans she finds herself alongside, who shout “Show us your horns!” in leering voices when she’s on stage.
Monsters are considered an inferior species in Martha’s world, and with rules that force them to stand on buses and prevents them from drinking alcohol, it’s also a clear nod to past racist polices in the U.S. Yet these parallels are handled with a light touch, as is the world-building and combination of puppetry and visual effects that bring the monsters to life so convincingly, with beautifully modulated facial expressions and physical movements. It’s this gentle yet confident hand that allows viewers to relax into Martha’s world, which is so much like our own.
And her own emotional trajectory will be recognizable to anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable in their skin or targeted for being different in any way. When she meets Kevin, so warmly and confidently voiced by Byrne’s real-life partner Bobby Cannavale, she finds a space where her monster self is accepted, even celebrated. Though the date goes awry, she still discovers that what makes her different is also what makes her powerful.
What makes “Martha the Monster” such a relatable, engaging story is how recognizable Martha’s arc is. But it’s also in how deep the story is willing to go into her pain and vulnerability that offers the rich reward of Martha’s happy ending. Though the movie is about a monster, it’s deeply and richly human in its emotion. And though it’s a short, Martha will remain in viewers’ memories as a fully realized character, full of wondrous, magical humanity.