... promising-looking indie flick then slowly watched it diminish
CHOIR GIRL (2020)
Ever watched a film that you think was bigger than its creator could handle? Like the creator was a fish determined to breathe air, jumping out of the water then landing on dry ground only to flounder about until it stopped moving? That’s pretty much the sensation I felt when I turned on this promising-looking indie flick then slowly watched it diminish into… well, something.
Choir Girl seems to be the first feature by John Fraser, whose only other writing/directing credit is a 2014 short film titled Legacy. In Choir Girl, Fraser does show his chops as a drama director with telling the story visually with simultaneous background and foreground action, timing, and shot composition and design. The black and white look also helps give the film a stronger watchability factor, adding a sense of beauty and viewpoint with modern cinematography. However, outside of the drama (which is usually dialogue scenes), there are a few intense scenes sprinkled throughout that could have been far better directed, notably the scene where the characters escape the hospital. Though most of the blocking feels organic, the “punches” clearly never land on the actors, the editing slows, and the shots feel generic, which are only some of the factors that make it hard to grip viewers’ attention.
Eugene (portrayed by Peter Flaherty) is a lonely photographer trying to sell his photos to a magazine to help pay for his ill father’s treatments. His photos lean towards the weird side, catching strangers in acts so private that some think he’s a stalker. He’s not, though, but instead just happens to be at the right place at the right time with his camera in hand. One night, he comes across a young prostitute named Josephine (Sarah Timm) in the middle of getting drugged and snaps a photo of her face. When Eugene sends the photo to a publishing representative, he realizes that Josephine might be the one to help him reach his big break, and perhaps he can help her escape the life she’s fallen into. But is he really helping her, or is he just using her as his muse?
In a way, Choir Girl takes some elements from Taxi Driver. Thematically speaking, I would say it has a stronger idea of what it’s trying to do than Joker, but falls flat in comparison to You Were Never Really Here due to the execution. Though the film makes it clear to the viewer what is happening, we’re not really sure why these things are happening, how they connect together, and what the overall lesson is. As the film gets deeper and deeper into what topics it wants to portray, it then leans into shock value instead of trying to tell its story and ultimately shoots itself in the foot. The heart’s in the right place, but hoo boy that scene towards the end made me very uncomfortable.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
The performances here are actually great, but the material the actors are given plus perhaps not the right direction keeps anyone from having a shining moment. No character has an arc nor are they relatable, so the actors end up feeling one-note from beginning to end. This, in turn, was the biggest problem trying to watch the film. Without the dynamic shift in emotions, it was hard to be invested in the film and take it seriously. Stakes weren’t felt, goals were left to the sideline, and any sense of moral quandary is buried in half-baked subtext.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
Overall, not half bad. There are no visual effects in the film, the hair and makeup look organic in each scene, and the production design does have its shining moments such as Eugene’s dark room, a restaurant in the first half of the film, and the one room with mirrors for walls. Outside of these superb set pieces are locations that are also great and don’t pull from the experience, but some such as the hospital and an apartment felt a bit barren.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
At the very least, this film can boast its score and sound design. I didn’t have any issues with dialogue being too quiet or the intense scenes getting too loud, and the score is actually wonderful and stands out at just the right moments to invoke emotions the material itself is trying to convey. Honestly, I may have to look up this soundtrack.
Choir Girl knows what it wants to talk about, but I feel the creators bit off more than they could chew. It’s a good attempt at a feature and honestly not bad for a first one in the indie film scene (trust me, I’ve worked on worse). I think if John Fraser really hones his skills of the craft more, he could potentially be making stellar films on a budget. He already has a good sense of pacing and visual storytelling, and the editing in this film is truly remarkable throughout, notably the montage scene. Though Choir Girl itself may be a clunker, Fraser’s next film may be of interest.