Crude Oil (Sundance)

By Christopher Good | Comedy
A young woman with a 'useless' superpower breaks free from a toxic friendship.

Jenny and Lynn are best friends, although Lynn definitely has some mean-girl energy that she isn’t afraid to aim at Jenny — like making her gulp down orange juice and toothpaste on a classic dare.

In retaliation, Jenny exerts her strange “not-so-super” power on Lynn: she can make people smell things. And in revenge, she makes Lynn smell a series of increasingly disgusting scents.

After Lynn moves to a new place out of town, Jenny finds herself blossoming, as she tries on new identities — dancer, food blogger, archaeologist — with increasing confidence. But when Lynn reinserts herself back into Jenny’s life in a legitimately bonkers development, Jenny must find the inner strength to assert herself against a stronger, more dominant best friend-slash-biggest frenemy.

High-spirited, risk-taking in its aesthetic exuberance and with an anarchic energy that mirrors the highs and lows of teenage experience, Christopher Good’s “Crude Oil” is a fresh, rollicking take on adolescence, female friendships and identity that pulls viewers into a fun, wild yet ultimately poignant vortex of buoyant creative vision.

The film is only 14 minutes, but it packs an immense amount of roller-coaster narrative and expressionistic bravura within its runtime, which is both its genius and its challenge. The pacing is quicksilver and frenetic, careening between montages, special effects and flashbacks with a rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place in a dubstep song, and it may take a while for viewers with more traditional expectations to settle into the film’s unique rhythms.

The style is colorful, joyous but not slick: there’s a warm, even goofy aspect to the visuals that doesn’t take itself seriously, though it does revel in the pure possibility of cinematic craftsmanship. The storytelling combines both a traditional coming-of-age friendship story with a winking, wittily ironic riff on superhero stories, but genre here is merely another ingredient to add to a very ebullient cinematic cocktail.

Underneath the cinematic joyride, there’s an emotionally complex and archetypal story about finding one’s voice in a toxic relationship. Jenny’s history with Lynn (and her boyfriend Ken) is handled with aplomb, as is her thriving when Lynn is far away, and the film’s hyperactive zest neatly mirrors Jenny’s own bubbling enthusiasm as she starts to find her purpose and passion. But when Lynn comes back into Jenny’s orbit to reassert her control — in a way that’s both hilariously literal and metaphorical — Jenny must use her own inner resources in an unusual yet ultimately relatable showdown.

Featured at Sundance and a highlight of its touring shorts program, “Crude Oil” takes many risks in its style but achieves vivacious originality — you simply don’t see a lot of short films that feel this way and pull it off with panache and insouciant assurance. But its themes and emotional resonance are very recognizable, framed as a superhero-ish fable about breaking free from a codependent relationship. Jenny literally must free her internal dialogue of Lynn’s presence, and she does it with the same tools available to anyone who’s ever had to deal with a bully, dump a toxic partner or stand up to an oppressor: she has to speak up and draw boundaries.

Jenny may have a seemingly silly, useless superpower (though one never knows when the power to make someone smell cat feces could come in handy.) But the one she ultimately draws upon is refreshingly yet still remarkably human: her own voice.

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