For the second time in a week, I find myself reviewing a film previously screened at my hometown Indy Film Fest, the catchier and groovier name for the Indianapolis International Film Festival. This film, James Choi's award-winning indie feature Empty Space, tells the story of Tom, a young man whose excessive weight has resulted in a lifetime of bullying and deeply rooted insecurities that are seemingly insurmountable.
Tom, likably played by Chicago-based actor Merrick Robison, initially doesn't so much try to overcome these challenges as he simply tries to relocate them when he leaves the family homestead and moves in to his late grandmother's cabin in the small town of Protection, Illinois. Keeping mostly to himself,Tom takes a job at a local diner working for Lloyd (David McLauchlan), whose rather taunting style of supervision doesn't exactly break Tom's cycle of bullying and abuse. Tom does, however, find a bit of refuge with Gladys (Suzanne Johnson), Lloyd's occasional girlfriend and always employee who has difficulty fathoming exactly why Tom would settle down, emphasis on the word settle, in this podunk little town.
Content to live a mostly unnoticed existence, Tom's isolation is thrown a curve when he encounters Rebecca (Madysen Frances), a young girl who'd likely be better off homeless with a drunken father (Ryan David Heywood) who leaves her preferring the cold, snowy Illinois winter rather than life with him. Tom's attempts at isolation are further complicated by a chance encounter with Lilly (Elizabeth Stenholt), a young blind woman for whom he rather surprisingly intervenes when a local bully harasses her at the laundromat where she works. The two forge a relaxed, comfortable friendship that is frequently endearing yet which also challenges Tom to become more comfortable in his own skin and circumstances.
Empty Space captured the Audience Award for best feature at the Lighthouse International Film Festival, the latest award for Choi, whose first film as a producer, Made in China, took the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative at SXSW in 2009 and was picked up by IFC Films for distribution. Continuing on its festival run, Empty Space recently screened at the 19th San Francisco Independent Film Festival and enjoyed a theatrical run in South Korea through cMovie.
Filmed on a modest $8,000 budget with a crew of three, Empty Space is the kind of film that one expects to find at an indie film festival with its intelligent, thoughtful story and performances that are devoid of the usual histrionics one expects to find in this type of film. Rather than go ultra-dramatic, Choi and screenwriters Paul Boring and Judith Krant have created a largely introspective, intimate drama that lingers even after the closing credits have rolled.
As Tom, Merrick Robison is given the most screen time yet doesn't necessarily cover a wide territory in terms of actual character development. He grows throughout the course of the film, but it's in quieter ways that you can watch Robison bring to life through his body language more than his bravado. I will confess there were a couple of times that Robison reminded me of one of my favorite teen/young adult performances, that of Charlie Talbert in the criminally underrated Angus.
It's massively to the credit of Choi that I found myself involved in and appreciating Empty Space despite the film's triggering one of the things that bothers me most in contemporary cinema - the use of non-disabled actors to portray disabled characters. In most cases, but certainly not all, any number of disabled actors could portray the character and that's certainly true in this case. Not to take away from Elizabeth Stenholt, who does a fine job here and embodies Lilly with strength and intelligence and vulnerability, but throwing shades on a character does not a blind character make.
As Rebecca, Madysen Frances gives the film's most complete and winning performance in a role that could have gone wildly wrong yet instead is near perfection. It's a gem of a performance and I look forward to watching out for more of Frances's work in the future.
Empty Space starts off a tad slowly before picking up an emotional resonance that turns it into an intelligent and meaningful film with compelling characters and a story that draws you in and helps you to enjoy spending time with these characters. It's the kind of film that reminds you why you love indie cinema in the first place, a more satisfying experience than a good majority of wide release motion pictures and a surefire sign of a talented filmmaker who accomplishes quite a bit with very little.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic