Coral has just broken up with her girlfriend of three years, and dealing with the aftermath has been difficult as she tries to make sense of what happened. How did such a promising, loving relationship go sour? Then Coral has a revelation that seems to explain everything: her ex-girlfriend was, in fact, a shovel. A literal shovel.
This explains her unresponsiveness, coldness and remoteness, and her inability to connect and empathize. With this explanation, Coral tells all her friends that she’s been leaning on for support and understanding.
But then her ex gets wind that Coral has been calling her out as a shovel, forcing Coral to confront her former lover in a meeting full of both pain and revelation.
Writer-director Dezi Gallegos’s eccentric, empathetic short romantic drama — produced by Maggie Phillips and Natalie Herman — has a comical, eccentric premise, but it’s really about the post-mortem we perform after a breakup: what we thought was initially a starry-eyed, deeply hopeful love story has shifted into something painful and sometimes even unrecognizable, and we cast for a new narrative that explains this unwanted “plot twist” in our lives.
For Coral, that new narrative recasts her ex as a shovel, much in the same way that someone would label their ex as a narcissist or a sociopath after reflecting on a former flame’s pattern of behavior in a relationship. The film’s inventiveness and wry humor come from taking this “relabeling” and recharacterization literally. As Coral mulls over her relationship, we see the typical romantic montages of countless films past of a couple falling in love — only instead of another human being, it’s a shovel. We also see intimate scenes between the couple, but instead of the typical couple, it’s Coral and her shovel.
This device both goes to show how typically cliched our imagery of romance and love is, in many ways, while also demonstrating how far Coral has gone in rewriting this chapter of her romantic history. The film has some fun with this, but it never gets carried away with this visual gag. Instead, the focus is firmly on Coral’s emotional journey, and it takes time for the true tenor of the film to emerge, though the consistently excellent writing, muted naturalism and gently unobtrusive visual style give us a clue that this is a more emotionally grounded film than it initially seems from its premise.
Coral may initially think her ex-girlfriend is a shovel, but that revelation is really a defensiveness against confronting the deep grief and sadness that comes with a breakup. As she comes to terms with her profound sadness, she comes to see her relationship with a more dimensional understanding, and that includes her ex. In doing so, she can finally and fully accept the ending of her relationship let go of the past, and come to some kind of peace with it.
This gives the ending of “My Ex-Girlfriend is a Shovel” a beautifully resonant ending, brimming with emotion and full of emotional intelligence and even grace in the face of heartbreak. Coral’s heart may still hurt, but it shimmers with a largesse of spirit that allows her to move forward. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, it found beauty in its cracks and let some light in, with the help of some radical acceptance and emotional courage.