This is England: The Short Films of Sean Conway

No one does detached British youth better than Sean Conway. He’s like an across-the-Atlantic Larry Clark without the dirty old man’s leer. Like most film school graduates, no matter the locale, he’s a combination of what he’s learned, what he’s loved, and what he longs to achieve. As much a writer as he is a director, Conway has expanded his media profile to include novels, poem collections, and several short stories. He’s also an accomplished screenwriter, selling his first script while still in college. In many ways, he’s the classic celluloid success saga – student film to much more accomplished work, minor recognition to national acknowledgement. In a series of short film steps, cobbles on the road to artistic reward, Conway has perfect his themes. He’s also found a way to cleverly combine prose with motion picture providence.

The results can definitely be seen in the following five mini-features, spanning the first three years of his output. Each one addresses a particular portion of Conway’s peculiar POV, including sex, drugs, crime, craziness, kink, cool, and above all, contemporary chaos. By focusing on individuals in his disenfranchised demo, by turning the standard coming of age into a true test of human will, he reinvents a genre we’ve seen dozens of times before. Even better, he does so from a decidedly British perspective, a look laced with tradition, techno, and a tendency toward underplaying emotion. This makes Conway’s work even more astonishing – even with said cultural setting, he still unearths the kind of rich psychological tapestry that a lot of more “obvious” films fail to deliver. Going over them one at a time, we can see his growth, as well as the common threads that bind his works together, starting with:

Rocco Paris (2005)

Rocco is an art student who spends his days painting Xerox copies of Kurt Cobain photos, his nights navigating the dead end world of his aimless youth. His girlfriend Zazie brightens things up, but the truth remains that our hero seems as directionless as his muse.

As with most student films Rocco Paris feels like a wholly insular initiation into the world of Sean Conway. It’s clear from what we see visually that this English upstart understands the language of films. His scenes come together with a kind of celluloid magic, making sense even when the narrative gets lost in a lack of explanations. Similarly, he ‘gets’ the concept of creating character tension by using gesture and actions as indicators. There is a real sense of discovery and personal growth on the part of our lovers, a look at a life that seems truly believable and yet almost completely built out of Conway’s desire to impress. Indeed, that’s what one means when they argue inferred narrowness. As a fledgling filmmaker, our future auteur is still getting his bearings. We see where he’s going, but we’re not sure if he’s getting there in the best possible manner.

There are other elements here that will also scream self-indulgence: the constant switching between grainy black and white and cloudy snuff film style color; the voice over narration that often misleads the audience as to intent; the sudden shift, at the end, into French (with French subtitles to boot); the projector sound effects; the flimsy fixation on the late Nirvana shaman. None of these whims are fatal to the film – indeed sometimes, Conway uses them as a necessary wake-up call for a viewer lulled into a kind of visual complacency. Most importantly, Rocco Paris illustrates what its maker continues to do best – finding the fringe faction in his own part of the world and illustrating it in honest, open, and aesthetically exciting way.

Rabbit Stories (2006)

Fenton Fuller is a young man tormented by schizophrenia. While his family wants him institutionalized, our subjects shattered mind senses conspiracy in every action.

Really nothing more than an extended rant punctured by occasional bits of conversation exposition, Rabbit Stories argues for Conway’s ability as a writer. There are times in this fictional tale when you swear he found a real mental patient, an equally authentic set of adults, and filmed them au natural, without provocation and within a stylized documentary. With the camera snaking around and in between characters, an editorial approach that plays with our own sense of reality, and page after page of perfected psycho speak, we can’t help by feel confused – and confident in Conway’s ability to tell the truth. The lines here are so stinging, so concrete in their ability to illustrate Fenton’s condition, that even if we didn’t have the voiceover telling us of his bubbling bad brain, we’d catch on rather quickly. He’s a classic nutjob in an equally timeless tale.

It’s just too bad then that there’s not more backstory here. We are interested in the Fuller family dynamic – why Mom visits, why Dad criticizes. We are also intrigued by the doctors, driven to distraction by our lead’s constant lack of an internal monologue. Again, one of the hardest things to accomplish in fiction is a factual portrayal of mental illness. Even with available examples in real life, and some undeniably gifted actors, artistic pretense frequently gets in the way of authenticity. But since Conway is a wizard at the truth, capable of uncovering it in even the most ditzy or dire of circumstances, it’s no wonder Fenton’s surreal stream of consciousness works. By avoiding the cliché and the stereotypical, Rabbit Stories reveals its knowing nature.

Alex and Her Arse Truck (2007)

Alex is planning on taking a bath, and her man plans on watching. Along the way we meet a geek burglar, a well-endowed swimmer, two larded drug dealing lesbians, and a pub filled with reprobate raffling off our heroine’s soiled knickers.

Like his American counterpart, trailer park Pasolini Giuseppe Andrews (the indie genius contributed two songs to the soundtrack here), Conway is interested in life the way it’s really lived – not the sugar coated, candy colored version of existence fed to us via television and advertising. There is a razor sharp authenticity here, an eccentricity meshed with the undeniable truth that easily takes one’s breath away. His actors really help sell the situation. As Baby Shoes, Danny Young is dynamic, looking like a slightly less smug Colin Farrell. He brings a real warmth to his jealousy-torn role, and his voice over narration is loaded with story enhancing emotion. Similarly, Gina Blondell’s Alex is the flawless personification of everything Conway wants to convey. She’s sexy, stupid, alluring, ambiguous, and ever so slightly out of reach. Even her walk screams something significant. In a setup that mandates a ying to a partner’s yan, Young and Blondell make a wonderful – and better yet, believable – pair.

There are other layers to Alex and her Arse Truck that help make this 15 minute masterwork feel far more fleshed out and realized. Race becomes a subversive sexual subject, as does overweight lesbian congress. We get surreal, enigmatic images of a swimming man covered in Band-Aids and a cheerleading group practicing in a darkened parking lot. The musical score does a great job of supplementing the circumstances, amplifying the out of control atmosphere and accenting the characters. As unheralded auteurs go, Sean Conway will definitely be a name to watch in the future. If there is any justice in an artform landscape littered with lame journeyman hacks, his will be a creative spark recognized and revered. Alex and her Arse Truck is all the proof anyone needs.

Kings of London (2008)

Two black half-brothers, both named Aristotle, try to figure out their path in the cold hearted criminal streets of the UK. One fancies himself a poet. The other competes in the unusual sport of ghetto racing. Each one faces his own struggles, both at home and out among the gangs and cutthroats they run into on a daily basis.

While it’s an obvious sentiment, this is what Conway has been building up to over the last few shorts films. Longer than anything he’s attempted before (at 24 minutes, it’s almost twice the length of Alex) and built on a solid storyline, this is a compelling character study carved out of secret loss, obvious problems, and some slightly off center concepts. The entire notion of “troubled” Aristotle wearing a woman’s wig, riding a horse, and entering unusual offtrack races makes for an curious arc, but the vast majority of the movie is made up of the quiet interaction between our two main leads, each one delivering the kind of understated performance that brings out the best in Conway’s material. Indeed, this is the best written short of the lot. It’s lyrical, ephemeral, cruel, calculated, and all too real in its slice of life snapshots. And thanks to the men managing these lines, we become entranced in the all too certain sense of doom.

Conway also proves his mantle as a visual artist with this film. The shots he selects, the slow motion races that put the mute Aristotle up against all competing horsemen, really shine in a viable, cinematic way. Filmed in HD, with a real emphasis on naturalism and found locations, Kings of London provides a glimpse of the city that few ever see. This is a view of the backroads and alleyways of the sprawling meta-metropolis, a portrait painted in struggles and survival. This is a place where no one wins and everyone suffers in the end. The film even begins with a story of date rape, and wraps up on a beat so horrific and yet obvious that it comes out of the plot organically. There will be those who question Conway’s desire to turn everything into a monologue, a chance encounter becoming several pages of pain-filled dialogue, but that’s the beauty of Kings of London. It’s a near masterpiece of tone, approach, and storytelling.

Sloe Gin Nights (2008)

Two boys spend an aimless night smacking each other in the genitals while a narrator explains their alienated and disaffected feelings.

In some ways, the story of this two minute short’s making is far more interesting than anything which happens on screen. Film journalist Mike Plante (Cinemad), got it in his mind to invite filmmakers to lunch. In exchange, the artist would have to agree to make him a movie. The catch? It could only cost the amount spent on the meal. In the case of Conway’s $24 repast, the results are quite odd to say the least. Shot on what looks like a cellphone and featuring some uncompromising male nudity, what we wind up with is a lark, a romp relegated to what looks like a poorly made porno. The narration provides some compelling context, as well as addressing the obvious questions about who, what, when, where, why, and how. Beyond that, and the intriguing set-up, we can relish Conway’s wordplay, but that’s about it. The rest of Sloe Gin Nights seems missing from the otherwise engaging middle section.

With a feature film in his future and what seems like the full support of a community ready to aid in his arrival, Sean Conway should soon be a household name. Like Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, he seems perfectly in tune with the United Kingdom of his life and times. Like Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie, however, he uses obvious stylistic choices and rich dialogue to enhance his day in the life dynamics. The combination is intoxicating, drawing one in while keeping enough distance to demand our empathy. With such a stellar foundation of filmmaking behind him, Conway is destined for greatness. That he’s already come close to achieving it here argues for such an inevitable aesthetic conclusion.