From His Lips to God's Ears
Shabbat Dinner tells the story of William (Chris London) and Virgo (Dan Shaked), two teens who meet when their parents get together for dinner in 1999. Bored by incessant adult chatter, the boys excuse themselves to William's room and kill time playing with a home-made Morse code device. Virgo transmits secret messages of his own, testing the waters of his new friendship: the day before, he'd come out to his parents, and is getting vibes that William might also want to unburden himself.
Writer/director Michael Morgenstern succeeds in telling a complete story in his fourteen-minute short, with humor, tension, and a relatability that transcends sexual orientation (anyone who's ever tiptoed into flirting will likely relate to Virgo's sweaty self-consciousness).
The era is also a deceptively important detail that caught me off guard. For half the film, I wondered why Morgenstern chose to set his story in 1999. Two guys talking in a room doesn't exactly scream "period piece", but there are two key differences between the way kids relate to each other now, versus fifteen years ago: first, in the absence of smart phones and an Internet that's worth a damn, William and Michael actually have to talk to one another. Theirs is a pre-Information Age relationship where tactile play is a cool way to kill time, and leads to deeper conversation. Second, these teens are only a year or so removed from Matthew Shepard's murder, a fact that has likely helped shape William's outright panic at acknowledging his unsettling attraction to boys--in addition to, I imagine, his father's (Michael Wikes) insistence that he find a nice Jewish girl to marry, in the name of upholding religious tradition.
That second note is pure conjecture, by the way. Shepard isn't mentioned in the film, but I couldn't help but marvel at how much pressure rested on these poor characters' heads. Society has come a long way in less than two decades, and though acknowledging homosexuality as being natural and beautiful isn't at the top of everyone's cultural To-Do List, Shabbat Dinner offers a nice reminder of just how recent these strides are. The dread is mostly subtext in Morgenstern's film--which is mostly a cute comedy. Like all effective comedy, it has lots to say amidst its squirmy, awkward laughs.
All that said, the movie is frustrating in pockets. Before we get to two boys bonding in a bedroom, we must endure choppy editing, shaky-cam, and close-ups that play like a not-so-polished take on the Sam Raimi montage. I get what Morgenstern and cinematographer Kristopher Layng were going for, but the pacing and extreme close-ups with questionable depth of field didn't invoke the awkward social frenzy the filmmakers were going for--but rather made me question if they knew what they were doing. The majority of the film is not as chaotic (though at times, London and Shaked look less like they're suppressing complex emotions than trying to keep a lid on a boiling pot), so I ascribe these rough patches to talented people still finding their footing.
The mark of any solid short is the audience's desire to see more. Shabbat Dinner succeeds on that level--not in terms of the characters, per se, but I'm definitely interested in seeing where Morgenstern is headed. It's refreshing to see a filmmaker explore big, relatable ideas when stepping into this arena, rather than going the cheap-and-easy horror route. This rough-around-the-edges movie feels deeply personal and is just weird enough to make me wonder how much of it was autobiographical (a few sitcom embellishments aside). We need more shorts like this, and more full-length features that retain its spirit.
To learn more about Shabbat Dinner, and to keep up with Michael Morgenstern's numerous other projects, check out the film's website and the Everything is Film homepage. You can also view the trailer for his upcoming short, Lily in the Grinder, here.