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Short Films in Focus: Squirrel

If you were the victim of a car crash and had to spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair, what would it take for you to forgive the person who caused the crash to happen? The first logical response to such a question would probably be, “depends on why the person took their eyes off the road. Were they in an emergency situation that warranted a distraction?” What if the answer to that question was, “No, they were texting something inconsequential to a friend of theirs.” I’d say that changes things a little. Or a lot.

Alex Kavutskiy’s comedy “Squirrel” presents this dilemma to a woman named Noreen (Andrea Rosen), who will spend the rest of her life as a paraplegic after a car accident. One day, the man who caused the crash, a socially awkward and guilt-ridden shell of a man named Patrick (Max Jenkins), comes to her house with a pitiful bouquet of flowers and confesses he drove the other car. How did it happen? He texted something to a friend of his, an inside joke having to do with a film, which I would rather not spoil for you here. He reads her the exact words of the text and now she cannot get it out of her head. “I’ll never walk again because of … ” Her husband (Ted Tremper) suggests suing the hell out of him, but Noreen needs to see if maybe this accident will, in some weird way, rescue her. 

Kavutskiy’s film is made up of the kind of uncomfortable moments that would not be uncommon in a film by Alexander Payne. Rosen’s performance is key her, as she struggles mightily to put the pieces together of what just happened to her while also fuming about the idea that something so trivial could lead to something so tragically life-altering. The more Patrick tries to normalize it and get out from under the guilt, the harder it becomes to forgive. Part of Rosen’s performance is a comedic choice to play everything so deadpan and matter-of-fact, but we also believe every word of it. This is a delicate balancing act throughout the entire film and Kavutskiy maintains a tone of discomfort throughout. 

“Squirrel” was an instant crowd-pleaser at this year’s Chicago Critics Film Festival where the film walked away with an Audience Award. It is damn funny and knows how to hit every moment. Kavutskiy has the right instinct for when to cut and when to make key reveals in the story. I have yet to see the actual film Patrick is referencing when he reveals the text to Noreen, but thankfully that doesn’t matter. Someday, maybe I will watch it, but certainly not in the context the filmmakers intended. Their film, like Noreen’s life, is forever altered, thanks to this stupid text message from this socially clueless dimwit. There really is more to the message here then “Don’t text and drive” and that message has a lot to do with how we behave when we feel guilty.

Q&A with writer/director Alex Kavutskiy

How did this idea come about?

I think my favorite ideas come from when you're trapped in a box and have limited options. When I started to brainstorm this short, I had unlimited options which was no good so I just put myself in a box—I decided it had to be something very simple to shoot and I picked Max Jenkins and Andrea Rosen as two actors I really wanted to write for, whether they would do the short or not (fortunately, they did). I kept thinking about Max and Andrea and their faces and tried to imagine various set-ups that would put them into an extremely vulnerable situation very fast and eventually landed on this premise.

How did you and Andrea Rosen collaborate on this character?

How you see Andrea on screen is basically how she came in to do the character and it was perfect. Makes it easier when you're writing for someone in mind. Other than that, every once in a while, it was just navigating on how hard or soft to hit certain comedic beats.

The opening scene is perfectly executed, but slowly paced for a short. What was your overall approach to setting up the story?

Thanks. The first scene was definitely the most fun to write and edit and is my favorite. Everything after the opening scene was much harder because it had to live up to how much I liked the first scene, which was just setting up the premise, which is always fun. I obviously can't see how people are reacting to the opening when they watch at home but I think it was paced just right for the theater audience in the festival circuit. I really loved when festivals programmed “Squirrel” after some serious shorts because the audience came into it not knowing it's a comedy. And the slower pace and how good these actors are don't tip it. So it was really a blast hearing audiences slowly realize it was supposed to be funny. Also, because Andrea's character's injury is not funny, I think the slower pace lets that sit and says "hey, take this injury seriously" before the comedic premise unfolds.

Who are some of your influences, either as a writer or director?

I started answering this question by making a list and it was just too many filmmakers I love and listing them all made me feel like a cliche. The immediate names that jumped out where more modern ones like Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, and Noah Baumbach. And then my brain reminded me how much even more obvious choices like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Woody Allen have meant to me over the years. I will also add that the major reason I got into filmmaking at all was because of David Wain and Michael Showalter. And for “Squirrel” specifically, I was trying to tap a little into the Todd Solondz pace and gallows humor and, for the score, I told my composer Jason Martin Castillo something that doesn't tell you it's funny but also not melodramatic and we landed on trying for something that you'd see in like a Yorgos Lanthimos film.

Without revealing the film, can you tell me how you landed on that particular phrase from that particular film?

It was just a place holder that stuck. I was talking with Max the weekend before I wrote this and he happened to have never seen this movie, which surprised me, so it was fresh on my brain. I always meant to go back and change it but could never think of anything better. This movie just felt famous enough but also just slightly not fresh in everyone's minds. I considered other quotes from this particular film but this was such a memorable trailer moment and involved a car crash, so it felt right. Classic case of "first idea, best idea". And because I wrote it, Max came over to watch just a little bit of the movie to get a feel for it and we ended up watching the whole thing.

And have you reached out to the filmmakers of [insert title here]? Have they seen “Squirrel”?

First of all, thank you so much for avoiding spoilers in these questions—I know a lot of fans would be disappointed otherwise. Actually, after “Squirrel” premiered at Fantastic Fest, it got passed along to Jerry Zucker, who emailed me to tell me how much he enjoyed it. It was maybe the most unexpected and wonderful email I'd ever gotten. The Zucker films had always been a huge part of my life. He took me out to lunch and gave me an autographed “Airplane!” poster. What more could a little filmmaker boy ask for?

What’s next for you?

I'm finishing editing another short and hope to hit the festival world with it soon. Other than that, developing some television stuff and I should be writing a feature but looking for any distractions—so this interview came at just the right time. However, if I'm not done with a draft of this feature by the time this interview gets posted online, then what the fuck am I doing with my life?!

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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