Mandy and her two little daughters set off with their grandma to the countryside in their car, which they have collectively christened “Sylvia.” They blast music on the stereo, plays road trip games, stop for ice cream on the way, and have a wonderful time enjoying the scenery and one another’s company.
But what appears to be a carefree family outing is not what it seems, just as Mandy reaches her destination at night — and prepares to say goodbye to their beloved family car.
Written and directed by Richard Prendergast, this dramatic short is elegantly crafted on all levels, from meticulous writing and editing to beautiful cinematography. All elements of the craftsmanship serve what becomes a moving, emotionally resonant story, whose impact is no less powerful for being so intelligently deployed.
The film takes time and care to set up the familial atmosphere, which is full of warmth, good-natured bickering and the activity and tussle of a typical family with young children. The morning light is radiant, the banter is lively and the children are mischievously eager for candy: all seems fun, with an air of festivity and adventure that is familiar to road trips.
Much of the dialogue and action is focused on the ordinary, loving interactions between Mandy and her daughters and the support and understanding of Mandy’s mother. This familial portrait is archetypal in its evocation of togetherness and specific in the small details that make up childhood, from the small toys the kids play with to the mess they make in the car, which has seen a lot of adventures with this family.
But as the storytelling unfolds, small but telling moments rupture the carefree spirit. Mandy fixates on small, poetic details, like the way the ice cream comes out of the machine, or the small music box dancing figurine that the daughters play with. These moments slowly shift the tenor of the film from its amiable, looser tone at the beginning to something more subtly disquieting and heavier in feel. The warm, sun-burnished cinematography shifts to something more muted and anxiously hand-held; the score moves from warmly acoustic to uneasy ambient tones; and Mandy herself shifts into more anxious and haunted emotions, though we’re not quite clear yet why.
Actor Jolie Lennon’s precise and engaging performance as Mandy holds the film’s overall shift together. Her character’s anxiety and troubled emotions gently seep into the performance and are subtle and restrained enough to generate a sense of mystery, which works alongside the shift in the film’s craft to a darker register. Viewers will wonder if there is something more ominous at work in the overall story, and just why Mandy is selling Sylvia in the first place.
It is a testament to Lennon’s performance and the craftsmanship’s elegant discernment that the reveal in “Sylvia” is both less sensationalistic and more emotional than expected, with a twist that builds upon cinema’s innate elasticity in portraying time, memory, internal subjectivity and external reality. Many twists are meant to be clever, but this one is innately tied to Mandy’s emotional journey, which makes it all the more powerful when audiences realize the full impact of all of the film’s elements. As a result, the conclusion of “Sylvia” is tremendously moving and earns its heartwrenching emotions genuinely and honestly — and is a fitting tribute to the people and story behind the film’s events, which is perhaps the most heartbreaking realization of all.