'Pet Names': Film Review | SXSW 2018

A winningly sharp Millennial riff on the greens of summer.

A former couple find themselves in close quarters in a Wisconsin-set feature directed by Carol Brandt.

You can't go home again, but sometimes you have to. For Leigh, the would-be grad student at the center of the lovely and sardonically unsentimental Pet Names, returning home means stepping into the role of caretaker for her ailing mother and, more unexpectedly, facing unhealed wounds between her and her ex-boyfriend.

Set over a few days of leafy Midwestern summer, the concise drama is sensitively directed by Carol Brandt from a sharp screenplay by Meredith Johnston. With its lyrical sense of place and terrific lead duo of Johnston and Rene Cruz, it's a strong example of low-budget regional filmmaking. In its focus on a local road trip for two formerly close protagonists, as well as its off-center, minimalist approach to narrative, it recalls Old Joy, by the great American director Kelly Reichardt.

The opening image of Leigh (Johnston) walking through a children's playground captures the particular allure and discomfort of nostalgia's backward tug, and the feeling of being where you no longer belong. For Leigh, life is suddenly on hold, or so it seems. Most of her time revolves around the meds schedule for her mother (Stacy Parish), an uncomplaining and relatively young patient who's bedridden with an apparently terminal illness. Dre (Chuck Norment) is the only friend from high school who Leigh feels comfortable with. But in the realm of awkward disconnect, most awkward of all — and wonderfully played — is her chance encounter with Cam (Cruz).

Amid the charged unease between them, they readily fall back into the push-pull of sarcastic banter, and his pug dog, Goose (Chato), makes a convenient point of focus for Leigh as she evades Cam's more serious attempts at conversation. When nobody else is available to replace her mom on a long-planned camping trip, Cam agrees to go, his ambivalence matching that of Leigh's invitation.

The two young actors deftly suggest their characters' former intimacy and their in-the-moment uncertainty as they keep each other at arm's length, despite sparks of feeling, and even when sharing a tent or tripping on mushrooms. Their barbed banter, especially in comparison with the strained yammering of two fellow campers (Lilliana Winkworth, Christina Seo), unites them in a very specific way.

Even at their most emotionally direct, Johnston's writing and Brandt's direction are understated and tinged with subversive humor. And there's real girl power in the film's climactic confrontation, which pierces the surface reality of Leigh's resistance and Cam's openhearted attempts to pick up where they left off.

The decision to shoot in the almost-square 4:3 aspect ratio perfectly enhances the movie's handmade sensibility and intimate scale — as does the plaintive, nonintrusive score by a number of composers, Cruz among them. With more vertical proportions than in the standard widescreen frame, Brandt and cinematographer Dana Shihadah emphasize the skyward reach of the Wisconsin locations' brilliantly green trees as well as the hemmed-in interiors of Leigh's newly recalibrated situation. All of it has the slightly faded palette of an old-school snapshot, whether forgotten or cherished. In its brief running time, Pet Names creates summer memories that resonate.

Production companies: Shaky Balloon Productions
Cast: Meredith Johnston, Rene Cruz, Stacy Parish, Chato, Chuck Norment, Jake Bradley, Lilliana Winkworth, Christina Seo, Mary Chuy, Jack Bensinger, Erika Sorenson, Marchesa Cats
Director: Carol Brandt
Screenwriter: Meredith Johnston
Producers: Carol Brandt, Chris James Thompson, Suzanne Jurva
Executive producers: Lisa Dietlin, Toni Chappell, Susan Mikulay, Kelly Fitzsimmons, Katie Heil, Susan Ballje
Director of photography: Dana Shihadah
Editors: Carol Brandt, Chris James Thompson
Music: Warm Human, Rene Cruz, Ian McGibbon, William Van Boldrik
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Visions)

75 minutes