Launched by “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig, Powderkeg: Fuse is a talent incubator program that highlights emerging female film directors. Omeleto is proud to share its diverse slate of shorts for this year — as part of its inaugural Fuse Directing Program — which are inspired by the vibrant communities of Los Angeles and united by a comedic sensibility that can range from bawdy to caustic to offbeat, but is always emotionally grounded.
Sunny has returned to her family home back in San Gabriel Valley for vacation, regrouping after a set of recent career setbacks in Portland. Adrift and insecure, she’s trying to figure out what went wrong and where she needs to go next.
But, on a simple shopping trip at a grocery store with her mother, all of Sunny’s confusion and anger comes to a head, as she faces what it means to be an adult and her own fears of falling short.
Written and directed by Jess dela Merced, this short dramedy is both a portrait of a young woman dealing with a severe case of imposter syndrome and a firecracker of a comedy, with acidic, witty yet honest writing about finding one’s place in the world while balancing the weight of familial expectations.
The narrative structure is essentially a slice-of-life snapshot, constructed from whip-smart dialogue and performances and a natural yet dynamic approach to visuals. Sunny is captured in the stultifying environs of a suburban grocery store, often in roving moving shorts that emphasize the setting as much as her character. Through its sometimes cheeky eye for composition, its bright glossy colors and a terrific sense of movement, the images situate Sunny as a proverbial fish out of water, and her caustic, sarcastic response to finding herself back at a place she thought she had moved beyond.
One of the great pleasures of the film is just how much the storytelling is able to milk humor and character detail out of this one setting, which brings together a wide cast of quirky types, a natural place for families to go together and visuals full of color and energy that speak to the bustling, variegated cultural landscape of America. There’s a great eye for the telling, ironic detail, and great comedy bits — including a confrontation with a snotty kid influencer and her equally trendy mother — are threaded throughout, which explore this predominantly Asian-American and Hispanic slice of greater Los Angeles. Yet all these moments ultimately funnel down to building Sunny’s character, from how she sees the world to how she sees herself.
It reveals a young woman who feels like a failure and an imposter, for both not succeeding in her work but perhaps also failing the imperatives she feels as a daughter of immigrants. This angle is handled with a great lightness of touch, hitting notes of sharp, spiky humor. But it also makes for some of the richer moments in the film, as Sunny has to face where she is in life, even as she tries to hide her own doubts from her family.
Smart, fun and observant of the tensions navigated by next-generation children of immigrants, “Phony” is a contemporary snapshot of millenial “adulting.” But it’s also smart about how that process is complicated with expectations from parents from other countries searching for broader paths to success for their children. Part of being adult may not be the avoidance of failure, but what you learn from it — and the resilience you build in the process.