2018 Milwaukee Film Festival – Review – PET NAMES
The 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival is over, but I’m happy to be providing some bonus coverage of several of the most buzzed about films at the festival. In particular, Carol Brandt’s PET NAMES received a lot of attention as a locally made film that really worked. So, given the opportunity to expand the coverage, I jumped at the opportunity.
PET NAMES has a straightforward plot. Grad student Leigh (Meredith Johnston) has dropped out to care for her mother during chemotherapy. Given the opportunity to take a short camping trip as an escape, she invites her ex-boyfriend Cam (Rene Cruz) and his pug Goose along. The camping trip proves to be less of an escape than thought as old wounds are confronted.
It’s straightforward, but the emotions and ideas evoked are anything but simple. Leigh has regrets and dealing with mortality is not something she was prepared to do in her twenties. As embodied by Meredith Johnston, who turns in a terrific, vulnerable turn, she’s smart, sarcastic, and overwhelmed in a performance that balances them all in every scene. Cam has charm and they have an easy chemistry together, and they have their own in jokes which the audience catches up with, but it didn’t work out in the past. And perhaps she’s right to be wary?
That unresolved history is at the heart of the film. Leigh is stuck in the present and past and needs to grapple with them both in order to move forward. And it’s not an easy journey and there’s perhaps no right answer. That uncertainty provides the dramatic heart of the film as the setup is straightforward and simple, but the resolution is anything but. It’s evoked in the choices that Carol Brandt makes as director too. The color has a warm, faded look and Carol Brandt has mentioned faded Polaroids as an inspiration. That warmth and nostalgia is one of the things that the film is grappling with as drama. So too is the choice to shoot in Academy ratio which forces the two main leads into close quarters. It’s both comforting and a pressure cooker.
All of that is to say that PET NAMES is a significant success. It’s a small independent film that may be reminiscent of things like OLD JOY, but has its own story to tell. A story told with a lot of skill, intelligence, and emotion. It’s small but potent. I expect many more significant films from both Carol Brandt and Meredith Johnston in the coming years.
The 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival made a conscious choice to make sure women filmmakers were well represented with almost 47% of their films directed or co-directed by women. PET NAMES indicates that it wasn’t mere tokenism as it was one of the better films of the festival, regardless of budget or origins. If anything it proves that it’s not that hard to represent women at a film festival. That’s something the Milwaukee Film Festival can take pride in proving and other festivals would be well advised to take a lesson from. Yes, I’m talking about you, Venice.
The 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival is over, but it looks to have established itself as a Milwaukee institution with a can do attitude. You can keep an eye out for the 2019 edition of the Milwaukee Film Festival by checking in at Milwaukee Film’s website mkefilm.org.