Owen and Jill are two strangers who meet up at night at a motel. They decide to go back to the room, where a seductively dressed Jill pours Owen some champagne, they exchange money and they sit on the bed to discuss what they’re going to do.
Owen talks about his troubled marriage, even though he and his wife have a baby daughter together. Jill listens, asking him questions and drawing him out. It helps her understand what she needs to do for Owen, she says. But as their conversation continues, things reveal themselves as much different from what they seem, for both Owen and Jill.
Writer-director Corey Shurge’s short seems to be a somber slice-of-life narrative, where cleverly constructed and written dialogue reveals unusual depths of character and two people often connect through mutual self-revelation. The film’s craft focuses on writing and performance, threaded with moments of often ironic, underplayed humor coming from Owen’s lack of self-awareness and, well, lugheadedness. But the storytelling has a craftiness that unfurls itself with slow but sure-handed execution, slyly puncturing expectations and revealing a much darker side to its meaning.
The noir-soaked, shadowy cinematography has both an ordinary flatness and a moodiness that are reminiscent of Edward Hopper paintings, particularly in a few prominent wide shots that situate small, isolated human figures amidst a barren empty suburban cityscape. Hopper’s great paintings explored loneliness, and in many ways, loneliness is the driving emotional force in this narrative, particularly for Owen, who is played with subtlety and sympathy by actor Aaron Merke with a wounded everyman quality. Owen’s marriage is troubled; he says his wife hates him and verbally abuses him, calling him insults like the one that inspires the film’s title. Viewers understand why he is looking for solace and sex elsewhere.
The other element in this narrative equation is Jill, played by actor Jade Michael in a clever, sophisticated performance that offers a cryptic and mysterious contrast to Owen’s more vulnerably open character. Part of Jill’s enigma is due to her work, and part of it is due to her narrative function in the first half of the film, where she functions as a sounding board for Owen’s marital woes. But with a subtle sleight of hand, the writing and dialogue reveal the unvarnished truth of both Owen’s situation and Jill’s role, deftly undercutting expectations, shifting the genre and propelling the narrative into an unexpected conclusion.
We’d love to say more about how the film’s seemingly modest craftsmanship reveals itself to be controlled and confident in the end, or how Owen’s conception of himself as a victim is undercut by his blind spots. But that would give away what makes watching “Lughead” so fun and engaging. What we can say is that the short’s surprises are entertaining but also thought-provoking, and with the unsettled feelings it evokes, viewers may be thinking about Owen and Jill well after the story ends.