As the digital age is allowing anyone with a camera to be a “filmmaker” it is becoming more challenging for true film artists to find ways to get their work seen. This has required many talented filmmakers to pursue the more audience-friendly genres of horror, rom-com and the most dangerous choice of coming of age chronicles.The restrictions of user-friendly movie genres seems not only an unlikely prospect but an impossible option for the filmmaker who emerges from this quiet but revelatory movie. The challenge that Brandon Colvin ran into was a clear way to get the film screened. Largely by sheer creative will and a year’s worth of fellow filmmaker’s commentary, Sabbatical has finely found its path to audience.
The plot is deceptively simple: A college professor takes a sabbatical to return to his childhood home less to focus on a new book and far more to provide assistance to his fragile mother who recently suffered a stroke. When he returns his forced to figure out how to “re-connect” not only to his family, former lover and friends but to the very core of his identity.
The important cinematic elements here have little to do with the actual “story” but far more within the way Brandon Colvin so brilliantly “tells” it. This challenging aspect of Colvin’s film is what makes it so very important. Not to deny the emotional power the film carries, but this is really more of an intensely effective study in Formalist Film Theory and Philosophy than a movie concerned with narrative. Colvin makes masterful use of Aaron Granat’s exceptional cinematography, set design, colors, pacing and literal perspective to communicate the complexities of universal human challenges. Colvin clearly has a visionary eye, but he has aligned himself with a group of deeply gifted artist. Tony Oswald’s work as the film’s editor is in perfect tandem with the filmmaker’s devotion to presenting emotion, tone and though a pace with true purpose.
Despite his shoestring budget, he has made an extraordinary and masterful work. His cast seems not to only understand the rigid framework in which they most perform but nothing feels labored in performances that often edge close to an almost Avant-Garde minimal approach. Robert Longstreet is one of the most under-valued actors working in film. He is able to convey more with the most casual use of his physicality and tone of voice better than most of the highly regarded film actors of the day. Rebecca Koon, Kentucker Audley and Thomas Jay Ryan are all exceptional in their abilities to fit into Colvin’s vision with ease. But it is Rhoda Griffis who is given the most challenging role as Ben’s former lover. Like Longstreet she has the presence and charisma of movie star. Most importantly, she finds a way to firmly establish her character who functions not only as our protagonist’s erotic desire, but also the only person he encounters who is actually trying to connect with him. She becomes a sort of Existential Mirror for Ben.
In one of the film’s most important scenes, Griffis reads a bit of Ben’s writing aloud. It is as much the manner in which she uses her voice with a weary sort of challenge as it is the content of the writing that we know she sees through Ben’s Kierkegaard/Nietzschean posing. But,that does not change the fact that Colvin has crafted a film the cinephiles and philosophy lovers will savor from beginning to end. While SABBATICAL is clearly a cinematically referential film — every one from Bresson and Bergman to the more obscure stylings of Jost and Hollis Frampton immediately came to my mind — It is crucial to point out that Brandon Colvin is not mimicking, stealing or even borrowing from these great artists’ work. The concept of the other artists’ work serves merely as jumping point to create a stylistic exploration that is completely unique. And, the though provoking use of the word, “sabbatical” consistently caused the viewer to re-evaluate what it really means. Is Ben’s return a break to grow? To focus on work? To help his mother? To reconnect to his past? Or, is this a sort of cease? And, if this is a ceasing — is it achieving identity-related conclusion. Or is Ben actually stopping? If so, what does that imply?
There is no hand-holding for the audience here. This is a challenging film art. It thrills me to discover an American Independent Filmmaker who is not only talented enough but brave enough to create a film like SABBATICAL. We don’t often have the objectivity and ability to fully evaluate the future impact of a movie. But I am fairly certain that Brandon Colvin has made a film the comes as close to being a cinematic masterpiece. The last times I can remember feeling I was seeing a movie this unique was when I snuck into a screening of RAGING BULL and a few years later accidentally stepped into a screening of BLUE VELVET. This film has no connection to those two iconic movies other than it carries just as much innovation and unsettling power in surprising new ways.
All the more impressive, Brando Colvin achieves with a micro budget and within 72 minutes what very few filmmakers manage even with $400,000,000, 3 hours and our culture’s bland A List movie stars. As SABBATICAL reaches conclusion, the potency of what has been so artistically presented comes to the audience like breath of new air. A few hours later, I realized that Colvin had managed to do more the deliver a potent movie — he had gut-punched me so quickly that I didn’t feel the pain until a few hours later. SABBATICAL is a film so clever and intelligent it demands your attention. Unforgettable.
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