When you see the words "local rapper" show up at the beginning of the latest low-budget indie flick, odds are you're not quite expecting a film like the one that Panda Bear It turns out to be.
I'm pretty sure that writer/director Evan Kidd is quite fine with the fact that you don't quite know what to expect the first time you lay eyes on Kamus Leonardo (Damien Elliott Bynum), a soulful rapper whom we meet at the mic where it's pretty clear pretty quickly that he's just not feelin' the rhymes.
Panda Bear It is an unusual film, an immersive and emotionally honest tale infused with surrealistic storytelling, healthy doses of drama, and more than a few genuine laughs.
Oh, and yeah, there's also a Panda.
Kamus Leonardo's world is upended following the unexpected death of his girlfriend, Destiny.
Grief is a weird thing. If you've experienced, then you know this to be true.
It's predictable. Until it's not.
It's dramatic. Unless it's not.
It's so damn dark. But, occasionally there's light.
Grief will make you laugh and cry and it'll also keep you from doing everything.
Kamus's grief doesn't at first seem to be that all-consuming kind of grief. He's functioning, but not quite just fine. He's basically going through the motions of life whether dealing with friends or family or the studio or his own self-care. He's doing just well enough that people can't quite see how well he's not doing.
As Kamus, Damien Elliott Bynum is kind of extraordinary. I say "kind of" not because there's anything wrong with his performance, but precisely because Bynum infuses Kamus with so much rich humanity that at times you have to remind yourself that he's acting. Bynum avoids the histrionics, partially owing to Kidd's low-key dialogue and partly owing to his own emotionally attuned performance and fierce charisma even amidst that grief. It's a terrific performance that had me checking out his IMDB page even as the closing credits were rolling.
There's a panda here.
I mentioned that, right?
Kamus hangs with Panda (Melissa Cowan Rattray), whose presence becomes more understandable over the course of this gently paced 63-minute feature film. There's such an amazing soulfulness to Panda, a simply created wonder who spends the vast majority of Panda Bear It encouraging Kamus to lean back into life.
Kamus isn't listening, at least not initially, but Panda is seemingly always there.
It's rather remarkable just how touching I found this entire scenario.
There are a variety of scenarios that play out, of course, from uninspired studio times to mindless hours playing video games to late work arrivals and unsatisfying relationships. They all mean something and in more ways than one they all lead back to the fact that grief has taken Kamus out of the game of life and he's become frighteningly disengaged.
While the majority of Panda Bear It centers around Kamus and this Panda, an odd yet wonderful relationship brought vividly to life by Bynum with a costumed Melissa Cowan Rattray, the film's entire ensemble cast is quite strong with special kudos going to Eric Hartley as a farmer and Mary Miles Kokotek as Irma. Truly, though, there's not a weak link here.
Kidd lenses the film himself, choosing a relaxed naturalism that works nicely for the story. While it can be a definite challenge to lens a low-budget indie, especially one involving a special effect or a costumed character, Kidd's lensing breathes beautiful life into this story and one could likely even say that the film's at its best when it's seemingly at its weirdest.
Because, if we're being honest here, there's not much "weird" actually going on here. There's a whole lot of truth.
And a panda.
I really enjoyed Panda Bear It, a quiet and observational film that gets the quieter aspects of grief quite right yet tells the story in a unique, meaningful, and strangely entertaining way. Kidd has assembled a strong ensemble that clearly understands his vision and they do a marvelous job of bringing that vision to life. In a year filled with so much loss for so many, from COVID-19 related deaths to financial losses to loneliness from quarantine, Panda Bear It seems to speak into this time with an understanding of the surreal nature of this life, the grief that can threaten to drown us, and the glimmer of light that can bring us back to life.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic