Felix lives in New York and works as a fitness instructor, but the real center of his life is his dog, Mr. Puggles, who has gone missing. In another part of the city, Charlotte is a young woman dealing with a family illness while still quite alienated from them.
When both characters intersect with one another over, they form an unexpectedly raw yet open connection, even as one person’s horrible mistake becomes another’s sharp grief.
Directed by Lucy Patrick Ward and produced by George Hamilton from a script by Joel Horwood, this short dramedy mobilizes a distinctly tragicomic sensibility, witty dialogue and exquisitely calibrated performances to explore the strange, circuitous ways people can form unexpected connections, even in the face of the small yet intense calamities that modern life can put in our ways.
Released in 2009, “The Reward” is notable initially as an early showcase for the performance talents of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the Emmy-winning writer, star and creator of the highly acclaimed series Fleabag. Though she’s “just” a performer here, Waller-Bridge demonstrates an early flair for the awkward comedy of people finding their bumbling, imperfect way through emotionally challenging, even devastating circumstances.
Here, she navigates an excellent script by playwright Joel Horwood, which has an absurdist but compassionate view of humankind’s foibles. Lives are busy and full with activity: exercising, walking dogs, shopping, working. And yet underneath all the bustle, everyone is still grappling with trying to find connection and meaning, whether it’s in a conversation or in the guise of a beloved pet gone missing.
The directing is understated and naturalistic, yet upon closer inspection reveals a sharp, subtle eye for ironic detail and humor. The shots and camerawork have a knack for situating characters in the larger panoramas of modern life and emphasizing the way they are lost or uneasy within these contexts.
The world, the film seems to say, can be a difficult place for sensitive souls struggling along as the tasks, commitments and obligations bustle them along like a river. Sometimes these currents can cause us to collide with others in a calamitous way — but those collisions can be the catalyst for deeper growth and connection, as Felix and Charlotte come to discover.
The humor of “The Reward” is wry, understated and yet unflinching in the way people can fail both themselves and one another. It also underlies how difficult and hard it is to be a decent and moral human being — and to take responsibility for the mistakes we make and sometimes inflict on one another.
Yet the film’s bittersweet, resonant ending shows that it’s the attempt that matters — the fact that we keep trying again and again, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulty and our own flaws and faults. As long as we keep trying — even when we fail — there is still hope for humanity, and for the small yet enduring triumph of human decency.