'Short Stay': Berlin Review

Short Stay Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Schlub life.

Short filmmaker Ted Fendt makes his feature debut in the Berlinale Forum.

A throwback to the early dog days of mumblecore, Short Stay is certainly true to its title. Clocking in at only 61 minutes, this debut featurette from writer-director Ted Fendt (Broken Specs) follows the wayward travails of a 30ish, possibly on-the-spectrum Jersey boy who decides to try his luck in nearby Philadelphia, only to learn that life in the big city is not quite what he was hoping for – whatever it is he was actually hoping for.

Simple yet effective in its naturalistic portrait of a man who can’t really fit in anywhere (nor does he seem to want to), this understated slice of East Coast life will mostly please fans of Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg and other low-fi DIY directors when they first started out. After a premiere in Berlin’s Forum sidebar, it should continue playing festivals and could find some short stays on VOD outlets, though theatrical is more of a stretch.

Mike (Mike Maccherone) is the kind of guy you vaguely knew in high school but never really talked to. A decade or so later, he still lives in the neighborhood and works at the local pizza joint, dreaming perhaps of another life but not doing very much to get there.

When he’s invited to a party in Philly, Mike meets an old friend, Mark (Mark Simmons), who’s headed to Poland and offers our hero both an apartment and a job giving free walking tours of the city. Mike accepts without much enthusiasm – he does nothing with much enthusiasm – though it becomes clear later on that the opportunity means a lot to him.

Basing an entire film around a protagonist as captivating as the Internal Revenue Code is no easy task, but Fendt manages to transform Mike into someone we can’t help feeling curious about, sorry for and even a bit hopeful for – this despite the fact that he’s incapable of carrying on a normal conversation with anyone, including a girl (Elizabeth Soltan) he may indeed be in love with. (Their handful of short-lived date scenes are a pinnacle of failure and silent resignation.)

Not unlike the antihero of fellow mumblecore auteur Ronnie Brownstein’s Frownland, Mike is a guy who simply can’t catch a break, though he’s neither caustic nor critical of those around him – he’s just sort of a major schlub. Whether Maccherone is actually playing himself is hard to tell, but Fendt coaxes believable performances out of both his lead and the rest of the cast, in the kind of movie where nobody seems to be acting yet everyone is acting natural.

Shot on 35mm by DP Sage Einarsen, Short Stay has the grainy, realistic look of a documentary from the mid 1970’s, chronicling the dull as dishwater streets of suburban New Jersey and the slightly more animated ones of downtown Philadelphia, where Mike tries to give a tour or two. When a few passersby accept, you almost feel bad for them: Mike is certainly no matinee idol, though he may still be a lovable loser.

Cast: Mike Maccherone, Elizabeth Soltan, Mark Simmons, Marta Sicinska, Meaghan Lydon
Director, screenwriter: Ted Fendt
Producers: Ted Fendt, Britni West, Blake LaRue, Graham Swindoll
Director of photography: Sage Einarsen
Editor: Ted Fendt
Composer: Sean Dunn
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)

No rating; 61 minutes