Short Films in Focus: The Shorts Programs of the 2023 Chicago Critics Film Festival | Features

“The Mundanes”

Shorts Program #1 (Saturday, May 6, 11:45 am) opens with Nicole Daddona and Adam Wilder’s “The Mundanes,” a truly bizarre PSA that seems influenced by Joe Dante’s “Twilight Zone – The Movie” segment, as well as the “Eerie, Indiana” TV series. Here, a faceless suburban American family is depicted as the ideal life, except for a bizarre twist. I always like to open with a fun attention-getter, and this four-minute treat arrived just in time during programming.

Next, Anna Margaret Hollyman’s “Wum“continues in that family-based suburban setting as non-binary Bennett (Jack Ferver) joins a mommy group made up of Instagram-ready mothers whose misguided sense of “wokeness” ends up being more patronizing than helpful. Hollyman has recently visited the festival with her equally funny parental comedy, “Maude.” She’s become a director whose work I look forward to whenever it happens. I have a rule about Saturday blocks: Saturdays need comedies, and I rarely turn down a short that makes me laugh.

“The Vacation”

We leave the lily-white confines of suburbia for an urban setting with Jearrau Carrillo’s Sundance award-winner, “The Vacation,” in which a barber and his friends sit in a car that won’t start and ponder whether or not they have control over their destinies, all while clueless patrons keep asking if the barbershop is open for business. Carrillo’s film doesn’t go for huge laughs, but many will smile knowingly as the relatable situation of a day off that goes nowhere plays out.

One person who has little to no control over her fate is Kitoko Mai, the subject of the inventive and fast-paced documentary “Thriving: A Dissociative Reverie,” in which Kitoko, who has Dissociative Identity Disorder, takes us through the day-to-day experience of being, among other things, a sex worker, an artist and other “identities” who unexpectedly take over. There is a dry, very clinical way to approach this subject, but director Nicole Bazuin thwarts that expectation and delivers something simultaneously funny, imaginatively designed, and eye-opening.

The healthcare theme continues with Sam Shainberg’s “Endless Sea,” in which a delivery woman (Brenda Cullerton) learns that the price of her heart meds just skyrocketed beyond her financial means, leading to a most stressful day at work. I have seen this described on Letterboxd as “a Safdie Brothers movie for the elderly,” which couldn’t be more dead-on. Cullerton’s performance stands out in this block and is a real discovery.

We leave the real world for a bit and meditate on a living piece of notebook paper in Han Tang’s “Beyond the Fringe,” a coming-of-age tale of sorts in which a human-shaped bit of parchment explores its life and limitations. It struggles with its place in the world as much as any human characters in the rest of this block do. Tang’s wordless, expressionistic animation style looks extraordinary on the big screen and is the kind of film where multiple viewings reveal multiple layers. I’m excited to hear what people think of this one.