By Karen Moore | Drama
2 friends meet up for drinks at a tiki bar, then start a bidding war for attention.

Hannah and Jess are best friends finally catching up with one another at a local Hawaiian-themed bar. It’s been a while since the pair met up, and Hannah is full of news about a recent trip to Mexico with her boyfriend.

Jess is listening as Hannah rhapsodizes about the trip and her boyfriend, but soon it becomes apparent that the conversation is a little one-sided, and skewed towards Hannah, who seems a little too insistent on her relationship’s happiness.

But Jess is increasingly skeptical as Hannah goes on about her boyfriend until finally, tensions erupt between the two — cracking open the conversation and revealing the truth lurking between the lines.

Writer-director Karen Moore’s short drama is a classic two-hander, featuring a pair of characters in a single location and point-in-time at a turning point in their lives and their relationship with one another. The set-up is one often seen in many short films — it’s often economical to produce, and it highlights great writing and performances — but what distinguishes “Volcano” is its sharpness of dialogue, its psychological complexity and the way it encapsulates the complexities of female friendship in a single conversation.

As a snapshot in two friends’ lives, the film has a heightened quality that elevates it above naturalism. Part of it is the look and feel, with it moody, saturated cinematography and lighting, which gives the film a sense of dreamy escapism. The tiki bar functions almost as a third character in the film, creating a space that seems detached from the hustle and bustle of reality.

In this case, though, the air of unreality has an organic relevance to the characters’ lives, especially Hannah, who enters the narrative with a kind of cheerful buoyancy and confidence. But there’s a neediness and performative quality to Hannah’s words as she talks, something that Jess picks up on.

The writing and performances showcase tremendous skill in exploring the way friends are often mirrors of one another. But what Hannah is asking Jess to mirror is unacceptable to Jess, especially as she becomes aware of the notes of inauthenticity in Hannah. This dance is ably portrayed by actors Hannah Chessman and Jess Salgueiro, who evoke a believable long-running rapport, as well as the subterranean currents of tension underlying the witty banter. As the night unfolds and the tension grows, Jess is willing to risk conflict to call Hannah out — but when it’s revealed just what Hannah is hiding, Jess shows herself as a true friend when it counts most.

As a selection at Toronto International Film Festival, “Volcano” could easily exist in a continuum with comedies like “Fleabag,” which offers astringent, unvarnished takes on thorny emotional terrain, pulling no punches while finding comedy in the lengths people will go to mask vulnerability and self-loathing through distraction and self-deception. Lies are often their own form of self-anesthesia in these kinds of stories, and much of the arc revolves around puncturing the cloud of deception and facing the truth.

“Volcano” is very much about the moment of puncture here, but the deliverance of this painful realization isn’t a fit of self-destruction or a calamitous personal event, but the impatience and no-BS attitude of a best friend, especially the kind who loves you too much to let you lie to yourself. With the help of the true loyalty and devotion shown in these friendships, we’re able to be honest about where we really are in life — and with the help of our friends, face that truth with love and compassion.

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