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Short Films in Focus: Flail with Director Ben Gauthier

We have hours in our lives where nothing happens, we’re completely bored and nobody is trying to get a hold of us. When we’re suddenly super-busy and multitasking, that’s when everyone decides they want to tell us something, they need an immediate response or we need to take care of a financial matter ASAP. This is where Ben Gauthier and Allie Levitan’s “Flail” exists. 

I’ve heard from people who have been personal assistants to highly demanding people who have no regard for other people’s time, energy and dedication that “Flail” gets everything right. I believe it. Movies that depict stressful occupations often come from a place of experience and “Flail” feels like it was conceived on the day it all actually happened in real life to its creators. The film opens with a young woman named Allie (Allie Levitan) frantically stuffing a bunch of birthday balloons into the backseat of her car while assuring her boss on the phone that she’s got everything under control, only to realize she’s got the wrong car. 

From there, we follow Allie throughout the day as she juggles appointments, medications, FaceTime calls from her mother, breakups with Tinder dates, parking disasters, and picking up her brother (David Brown), who rides along with her for a while until it’s too much to bear. While all this is happening, we see countless notifications from her phone spring up on-screen, giving her (and us) calendar notifications, medication alerts, innocuous Instagram messages, discount offers, text messages from her sister (oh, right, she’s waiting at the airport) and more confusing messages from her boss. 

I would advise maybe watching this a couple of times to catch all of these notifications, which come in fast and furious. I have seen the film many times (I programmed it for this year’s Chicago Critics Film Festival), and every time I view it, I notice something I didn’t notice before (this last time was the first time I noticed she confused “Petco” and ‘PetSmart”). Some people have found it overwhelming, and I think that's the point. “Flail” moves quickly, and maybe it’s good to know that the viewer should not try to take in every text message, because Allie sure as hell isn’t keeping track. This is a day many of us have had, one where we try to do too many favors at once, prioritizing nothing and constantly rushing the clock to get it all done. 

Of course, a movie like this needs some catharsis and “Flail” arrives at its most logical conclusion. There is only so much a person in Allie’s position can take. Levitan, who gives a pitch-perfect performance here, gets to have a very funny final confrontation that I find myself mouthing along to every time I watch it. “Flail” got big laughs when it played in Chicago last spring; it might be what someone needs at the end of a long, hard day of being overworked and undervalued. It’s a workplace comedy that is all over the place, both by design and intention. If you feel like “this is me every day,” maybe start by, you know, turning “off notifications.”

Q&A with director co-writer Ben Gauthier

How did this come about?

It started with trying to articulate this feeling of flailing—that distracted and overstimulated headspace where you're half-doing three things wrong instead of doing any one thing right. I've spent so much of my life there and have never seen it fully captured in film.

I’ve known Allie Levitan since college, so I knew she was brilliant, and I thought she could relate to this feeling. We both worked these intense, pressure-cooker personal assistant jobs and were both BAD at them. Thank God she was down, so we collected our flailing experiences into a massive Google doc and started shaping this horrible day together.

Were there more threads and stressors in Allie’s day that got cut, either during development, production, or editing?

Yeah, it was a little overstuffed by design. We cut most of the detail from David’s freak out - he had a whole thread where he punched a palm tree because he was so stressed out that Valentine’s Day was coming up. In the edit, we cut a scene with Jada (played by the funny & talented Sydney Battle) because it slowed us down in the back half of the day. We had written an interaction with a parking garage attendant (played by the funny & talented Wyatt Fair) that didn’t make it because the real attendant chased us out of the garage after one take.

Could you tell me about the music choices? I feel like the final buzz at the end of the sound of Allie’s brain completely fried by the events of the day. 

Yeah, completely. Early on, I remember talking to our composer and sound designer, Justin Enoch, and describing that feeling of overwhelm as TV static—so much noise that it becomes white noise. Justin is a genius!! They really smashed it. I'm so happy with the score.

I also want to shout out Container - his tactile, scuzzy techno was a massive touchstone as we started building out the sound of “Flail.” And a Nikki Nair song - "Plug" - helped crystallize that completely fried, blown-out speaker moment you mentioned in the question. 

The phone notifications come at the viewer so (hilariously) fast it’s hard to keep up with them. Were there versions in the editing, or were there discussions on how much was too much? Or how much was enough? 

I don't know if we ever hit 'too much,' to be honest. For one thing, it was pretty annoying to animate all of those phone notifications, so I tried to limit my flip-flopping. I was always willing to sacrifice viewer comprehension to capture that feeling of flailing, for better or worse. It's also a huge credit to our editor, Glenn Fellman. His fingerprints are all over this short, and I owe him my life.

A few abrupt cuts in the film effectively speed up the pace. Was this a choice in the editing or in the writing?

I love abrupt cuts in general - they're so good for comedy. Also, I think we generally overestimate the importance of exposition. We've all gradually eradicated our need for context by mainlining TikTok, etc. Basically, “Flail” moves slowly compared to scrolling.

Also - and maybe this is less apparent - I love Joanna Hogg's movies, and her outlining process hugely inspired me while scripting Flail. Thank you, Joanna Hogg!

What’s next for you?

Allie and I are developing Flail into a feature! It's been a total blast, and we watch “The Devil Wears Prada” every day. I also need to eat lunch.



Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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