Shortgame is a film about relationships. Specifically, attempting to maintain them. Despite its lean 10-minute run-time, Allistair Johnson’s short manages to explore a father’s earnest attempts at connecting with his tween-age daughter, through the noise of step dads, strangers, video games, mini golf, and — most delightfully — a pinch of cosmic dread.
The film begins with our protagonist (Dad) knocking on the front door, as he’s greeted by his daughter’s overly enthusiastic step father. Dad’s there to pick her up for some quality bonding time. The men’s greeting seems obligatory and plastic, suggesting from the get-go that Dad is very literally on the outside of things here: houses, interactions, relationships. This extends to his daughter, providing his first real hurdle: she’s more interested in playing her video-game alone than spending time with her dad. This is denoted with the title screen and opening electronica score literally playing overtop of a close-up of her game’s screen.
It’s important to note, Dad’s not a pushover. We feel an honesty in his love for his daughter, permeating the strangeness surrounding him in the film. He really is trying to connect, and not in an annoying way. Despite his kid all but ignoring him, he’s nonetheless excited to share his planned activity for their father-daughter time: a mini golf outing. It’s apparently something they used to do together, presumably before divorces, puberty, and Nintendo DS.
Things are no less alienating when they arrive at their destination. Dad has to navigate the weirdo come-ons of the desk-clerk, and vie for attention over his daughter’s gaming, before even making it to the obstacle course outside. Naturally he’s still met with resistance from his kid; she’s just determined to not have fun here.
But our hero perseveres, trying patience, and kindness, and good parenting. And slowly but surely, as they weave their way through the course, they start having fun together. Laughing together, sabotaging each other’s strokes, perhaps even enjoying each other’s company.
By the time they reach the 18th hole, Dad’s ready to keep this up. A sign sits above the 18th hole, enticing players with a free round if they get a hole-in-one. His daughter is less enthusiastic, (as a surprise to no one) probably not wanting Dad to push his luck with quality time well spent. Still, Dad plays through, inevitably getting that sweet hole-in-one.
And then things get weird.
His victory cry reaches no one: his daughter is gone, the desk-clerk is gone, no strangers seem present. Everyone has vanished, or, maybe he has. The only thing that remains is the golf course.
And so he plays again. And again. Continuing along the same course he played with his daughter, only this time alone. The plastic gargoyles making up the obstacle course loom in place of time. We’re unsure of how long we’ve been here, and seemingly, so has Dad, as he wins game after game, able to play through round after round. His face, once open and warm, now as unreadable as the statues around him.
Importantly, Dad KNOWS he’s caught in a loop. The final shots of the film catch him in a moment of deliberation. He’s been here somewhere between ten minutes and ten years. If he misses this final hole-in-one, things will probably go back to normal.
But who wants that? In Johnson’s film, “normal” is strange enough. For a film spending 90% of its time exploring a comical evening between two characters, the film is MOSTLY about the relationship between Dad and EVERYONE ELSE. And whether it’s a horror or a comedy, we just don’t know. What we do know is that Dad is choosing this loop, time after time. It’s easy. It’s without conflict. It’s solitary.
The real question seems to be: which reality is worse? In the end, we see Dad make his swing, but aren’t rewarded with the outcome.
We’re all left unsure.
Review By Brendan Dean
Short Game was selected and screened for our VOL. 002 Series, November 25th, 2018