Piper and Celeste used to be best friends when they were younger, both living in a trailer park. But now they are young adults and have embarked on separate paths, with Celeste moving up and out of the park onto college while Piper remains behind.
But then Celeste faces a difficult personal dilemma, one that would derail her plans for her life: she's pregnant. Looking to avoid the judgment of her sorority sisters, Celeste calls Piper and asks her to accompany her overnight on a trip -- one that forces them to address how far they've grown apart, but also reminds them what pulls them together.
Directed by Xinyi Zhu and written by Sheridan Watson, this short road drama weaves an intersection between the political and personal, leveraging a poignant intimacy and emotional intelligence to form a portrait of a complex friendship between two young women. While it features the hot-button topic of abortion as part of its dramatic circumstances, it recedes in light of the narrative's focus on Piper and Celeste, as two friends whose paths have diverged from one another.
With a thoughtful economy of detail and a well-observed sense of naturalism, the film sets up the girls as a study in contrast. Piper drives a beat-up pick-up truck, in which she picks up an embarrassed Celeste from her nice college sorority house. The dynamic is established: Celeste is upwardly mobile now, while Piper remains working class. As the former friends hit the road, the air between them is tense and stilted, even as the camera captures the sun-soaked, ordinary yet poetic details of the road trip.
When the pair settle into a motel room for the night before Celeste's appointment, the close quarters force the two to break down what happened between them. Actors Jill Renner and Nicole Falk deftly play their characters with precision and specificity, but they also play their latent connection to one another with both resentment and tenderness. At first, this connection is a source of awkwardness: we get the sense that Piper judges Celeste's new life, while Celeste feels embarrassed to be around someone who can "see through" her new persona. But as they open up and speak with genuine vulnerability and honesty, it clears the way for a tenuous rapprochement -- one that helps Celeste weather the next difficult step of her journey, with her loyal friend by her side.
Both searing and tenderhearted, "Kindling" ends with a fraught but moving image of two girls walking the gauntlet of shouting abortion clinic protestors, with only one another for strength and shelter. In the end, they're together, making the film an unsentimental yet honest exploration of a friendship's ability to endure. Friends do grow apart, but as Piper and Celeste discover, that love and loyalty remain, as long as that bond is acknowledged with respect and affection. Maybe the two will continue to grow apart; maybe they'll make more of an effort to stay closer. No matter what, they will be that one person who knows them better than anyone.