Snowy (Sundance)

By Kaitlyn Schwalje and Alex Wolf Lewis | Documentary
A pet turtle lives an isolated life in the family basement. Can he be happy?

Larry owns a pet turtle named Snowy, and he makes sure that Snowy is well fed and cared for. But despite Larry's conscientiousness in providing for his pet, somehow Snowy isn't thriving.

Larry thinks all is well because Snowy is surviving, but a closer look reveals that Snowy isn't quite "happy." His beak is broken, and he needs more room to move. When faced with the evidence, Larry must expand his idea of what Snowy feels and can experience, or else Snowy will continue to languish.

Directed by Kaitlyn Schwalje and Alex Wolf Lewis, this short documentary has a humble quirkiness on the surface, cataloging the times and travails of a family's pet turtle. It entertains and charms in equal amounts, but as the film unfurls, it gently explores the idea of animal subjectivity, and what it means to be happy.

The film opens with a tarot card reading for someone who is "not really happy with where he is." They feel trapped in inadequate circumstances and surroundings that feel like a "prison" and feel sad as a result. We soon discover this "someone" is a pet turtle named Snowy, who lives in a small tank in a basement.

There's a warmth in the interviews, stemming from the amiability of the subjects and emphasized by the upbeat, cheeky score and charming details highlighted in the images. The editing has a lot of fun with ironic and amusing cuts, capturing the ins and outs of Larry providing for Snowy. Larry has great affection for Snowy, even going out of his way to buy nightcrawlers and earthworms for Snowy in the winter, which Snowy has a hard time eating.

But Larry's care of Snowy doesn't extend beyond providing his food and shelter, and from his point of view, Snowy is fine. As the film proceeds, Larry is gently prodded to consider larger questions. He himself says, "You can be fine but you can always be better." As he starts to train that question onto Snowy, he and the audience begins to consider what Snowy needs beyond food, shelter and water in life.

A Sundance selection and longlisted for the short documentary Oscar, Snowy is, in many ways, a "feel-good" film. But underneath the sunny, almost folksy demeanor is a more profound exploration into the nature of happiness and what it means to not just survive, but thrive. Happiness may be too nebulous or subjective a concept, having prompted debates and questions for people for some time. But when it comes to questions of vitality, energy and thriving, we can perhaps broaden the inquiry to all beings. In the end, Snowy gets a bigger home and time in the sunshine. He gets a bigger world to roam, explore and experience freedom and peace in -- something that human beings, and maybe all creatures, long for and need.

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