By Leah Martindale, Film & TV Editor
This UoB-student-made film fizzes, rather than fizzles, with a witty, wry take on the classic film-about-a-film genre.
Florida When It Fizzles is the extremely ‘meta’ student-made transatlantic adventure documenting the attempts of fictitious characters with the actors’ own names attempting, with little success, to create a film.
With such bold metatextuality, the film raises age-old student film conundrums, but certain actors’ comedic abilities and the unprecedented dedication of Director, Director of Photography and Editor Tom Whitson cannot go without their just appreciation.
Comprised in equal parts of handheld shots filmed on-location ‘in the arduous Florida sun’, and of documentary style ‘talking-heads’ shot in the Film and Television department’s recognisable cinema, the film spans the motley crew’s descent into madness and retrospective discussions of the film’s inevitable failure.
While the on-set scripting at times felt stilted and unnatural, the actors’ ad-libbed talking heads showcase natural their wit and character understanding to be more advanced than perhaps the meta-casting might imply.
Writer Tiarnan McCartney stars as Writer-Director ‘Tiarnan McCartney’, Assistant Scriptwriter Tom Wiles stars as marketing man ‘Tom Wiles’, Sound Engineer Lion Schellerer plays ‘Lion Schellerer’… you see how this gets complicated?
Special commendation must go to the riotously funny Alex Stevens, with one-liners and dry humour to rival the likes of Seth Rogen. UoB drama regular Charlotte Bartholemew’s charms were lost in the unlikeable, overplayed ‘Charlotte’, but shone wryly in improvised talking heads.
The overworked, uncharacteristically uncharismatic ‘McCartney’ played perfectly off the hippy-dippy and overindulged ‘Seth Gillmore’, while Phoebe Carney was a breakdown in-waiting.
Following the trend of one-location descents into madness characterised by the likes of 12 Angry Men (1957), the film’s rising Lord of the Flies ‘kill the pig/destroy the script’ hysteria was improved thematically by the sweltering heat and blinding light of the Florida location, much as Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) slowly turns the heat up on its characters, enough to boil them alive without their noticing.
The actors’ ad-libbed talking heads showcase natural their wit and character understanding to be more advanced than perhaps the meta-casting might imply
However, given the cost and difficulty that shooting on location, the setting is criminally underused. With approximately three shots taking place outside of the beach-house walls, including an Ari Aster-esque drone shot of the recognisable Florida landscape, the film could have just as easily been shot in Cornwall.
Though the location does add to the tone and plot, the cost involved in shooting there seems difficult to justify when some key production areas disappoint. There is little excuse for the notably student audio quality, often unfortunately undercutting ‘Phoebe’s’ moments of wonderfully underplayed despair.
With heatwaves in the U.K. on the rise - cheers, global warming - the location is more of a financial indulgence and a cheeky holiday, which no one can berate the cast for, but it is a falsity to pretend it was artistically necessary.
Given the cost and difficulty that shooting on location, the setting is criminally underused
Hopefully, there was some budget left to spend on the legality of the film, as the inescapable use of American news broadcasts - onscreen in the background of ‘Charlotte’s Ending’ - and copyrighted music over the end credits must be addressed.
Students have a rostra of legal protection in side-stepping ownership laws, but in a paid, ticketed premiere there is no room for wiggling.
The ‘film about filmmaking’ is a genre done successfully from the oh-so-problematic Tropic Thunder (2008) to the sublimely slapstick Hellzapoppin’ (1941), and the iconic and indescribable The Disaster Artist (2017). In a genre so established, it is hard to find ones footing, but Florida When it Fizzles does not falter.
Capturing the spiralling madness of on-set repetitiveness, rising tensions and creative egoes, and Stockholm Syndrome pseudo-friendships of every crew, the film is an undeniably funny peek behind the veil into the glamour of Hollywould-be's.
Despite ATM Films advertising a wealth of talents, the bulk of Florida rests on the surely-wearied shoulders of Tom Whitson. Tasked apparently alone with shooting the docu-style organised chaos, as well as months of editing, the director’s dedication and technical ability is admirable.
Working alongside a hybrid cast-crew with equal investment in the creative process as their close-to-home characters must have been no meek feat, and for that a paragraph of commendation feels only fitting.
The film’s basic premise is funny, but simple, and so its successes ride almost entirely on the cast’s ability to bolster the narrative without falling into the age-old student-film trap of creating a 120 minute in-joke. While it was certainly enjoyable to myself as a relative outsider, the riotous laughter at the film’s undeniably self-indulgent six minute holiday snap slideshow was enough to assess the audience’s alignments.
When a woman who had not featured in the film got applause that was energetic as that for the lead characters it was clear to see the audience comprised nearly entirely of friends, at which point any like-minded outsiders began to question how many of the jokes we had truly understood.
Tasked apparently alone with shooting the docu-style organised chaos, as well as months of editing, the director’s dedication and technical ability is admirable
While this is the perfect crowd to proudly premiere a passion project, your living room piano recital to your mother is hardly demonstrative of potential successes at the Royal Academy of Music. I for one am excited to see how Florida When it Fizzles stands up at film festivals, to which it is currently applying, before impartial judges.
There is no doubt in my mind that the filmmakers will taste the familiar unfamiliarity of your throw-away lines being the audience’s favourites, and the pieces which buckled your friends garnering wry smiles and snorts at best.
Hopefully with the resources clearly at ATM’s disposal, Whitson’s tireless talent and the energy evidenced in the script and performances can be funnelled into artistic pursuits with the experimental vigour of their shorts, available on their Facebook page and Vimeo.
Florida When it Fizzles is now available on Vimeo, as well as premiering in film festivals. This high-scale student production deserves commendation for its dedication, vibrancy, and risk-taking, which hopefully it will receive.
Featured image: ATM Films
Have you seen a student film that defies expectations?