A young woman is invited onto a talk show to confront a famous music producer named Ben Tito. Three years ago, Natalie had been an aspiring singer-songwriter, but during a recording session, Ben exposed himself to her, among other transgressions.
Natalie goes on the show with the hopes of getting her story out there and speaking out about an important issue. But under the hot glare of the media spotlight, she finds Ben armed with a seemingly perfect apology.
Arch, cynical and possessed of razor-sharp intelligence, writer-director Artemis Shaw’s short initially seems to be a drama, setting up Natalie’s state of mind and her situation with great economy and precision. She’s nervous, but she’s clear in her intent to get her story out there, and she has the support of others who want to see abusers of power like Ben Tito be held accountable for their actions.
But this story is not as it seems. There are hints of this in the visual design of the film, with its aggressively lurid, surreal pastel sets of the talk show. The editing and camerawork seem straightforward at first, but as the talk show begins, the cutaways to the audience increase, as does the pacing of the storytelling and growing inclusion of ironic detail. It all constructs the sense of a slowly boiling fishbowl being erected around Natalie, who remains sincere in her desire to tell her story.
The writing, too, shifts, from a fairly realistic and precise register focused on Natalie’s subjective experience to being almost too “on the nose” as Ben tells his side to the public. But hitting all the right notes is the point, as Ben’s apology seems perfectly calibrated to emphasize his contriteness, his understanding of the underlying systemic issues and his desire to make amends.
The key ideas and words are all there — toxic masculinity, systemic oppression — and Ben seems sincere. But as the film’s stylistic choices become more pronounced and more outrageous, Natalie’s sense of owning and telling her story on her own terms slowly recedes.
Actor Sarah Steele remains steady in her vulnerability, frustration and powerlessness, serving as the moral center of the film, even as the narrative collapses around her into a satire of performative contrition. It piles one outlandish gesture upon another, ending with one almost operatic in its ludicrousness. It’s sold as an attempt to make amends but is merely a way to tug at the heartstrings of the public, closing the loop of public opinion — and shutting out Natalie’s full story and point-of-view.
Sly, smart and provocative, “Real Talk” offers a darkly comedic slant on the public calling-out of abuses of power faced by women in various industries. It isn’t focused on the grievances of the women as they experienced them, and instead on the media circuses that have emerged around speaking out and holding abusers accountable in the court of public truth and opinion.
Through its deftly accomplished sleight-of-hand from a seemingly straightforward drama into comedic satire, “Real Talk” instead becomes a cautionary tale of its own, a story of what happens when the victimizers hijack narratives trying to come to light. Once again, abusers exert control over the discourse, setting the terms of engagement and manipulating perception. And once again, the powerless are left silent, their stories and perspectives erased or minimized — along with their sense of importance in a world hostile to their pain, and to the need to change and evolve.