Second Best

By Alyssa McClelland | Comedy
Identical twin sisters become rivals as one's gymnastics career steals the spotlight.

Velika and Nouchka are twin sisters. But they lead very different lives, though they live in the same home. Nouchka is a star gymnast, whose career is nurtured by their domineering Russian mother, who projects her own aspirations onto her talented daughter. Velika, however, works at a pool and spa store and is ignored.

The sisters were once close but have diverged emotionally. But one fateful day, both of their careers take an unexpected turn, changing the dynamic of the family.

Directed by Alyssa McClelland from a script she co-wrote with Simone Moessinger, this deadpan, intelligently calibrated short dramedy is a portrait of a dysfunctional family that achieves a complex, unique tone and mordant humor with its remarkable images and committed vision.

What’s most striking initially about the film is its distinctive visual approach, which emphasizes artful, striking but often static wide shots. Within the frame, characters move in and out of spaces exuberantly festooned with decoration, and color in the sets and costumes is cleverly employed to keep the eye moving. But despite the almost fanciful use of color and volume of the film’s physical world, the wide shots create a sense of emotional aridity and isolation, as does the spare dialogue, with little interaction or relating between characters. Each character is off in their world, and these worlds rarely intersect.

Funny little details catch the eye and build character and milieu, but the overall impression is distant and absurdist, as if watching strange specimens go about their existence with their odd rituals and preoccupations. Such a distance can often skew cold, but as the spare but meticulous storytelling focuses on Velika, her character and the challenges she faces become clearer and the narrative begins to engage emotionally.

The challenge for Velika — and the whole family, really — comes in the form of her overbearing mother, who completely neglects Velika and her husband in favor of Nouchka. The film applies a spiky, almost satirical lens of humor to its observations of a stage mom/coach with her young protege. But as the film unfolds, viewers realize how lonely Velika and the rest of the family is.

The performances here generally follow the almost mannerist approach of the visuals and are muted and deadpan. But flickers of genuine emotion, especially from actors Karina and Raechelle Banno, who play the twins, hint at the reservoir of sadness underneath everything. These deeper feelings come to the fore when Velika and her twin’s fortunes change one day, changing their family as a result.

“Second Best” is deeply and darkly funny, but its humor is of a very dry, ironical vein. It’s a necessary distance, for if the film took a more naturalistic, straightforward approach to the portrayal of the family, it would be a tragedy to watch. Instead, we’re allowed to laugh at the absurdities of the human ego and watch their ripple effect on a family quietly enduring its dysfunction.

In the end, though, there’s a gentle twist, and we’re rewarded with a scene of genuine rapprochement and connection. It reminds us of the connection that was lost for these twin sisters, but also what is restored when they assert themselves and stand up for themselves and their bond, despite everything.

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