The crisp black and white palette of Some Kind of Heavenly Fire harkens back to The Twilight Zone, from which this short film may be a lost episode, as if it were produced in the midnight programming of MTV.
I attended a showing of the short film directed by Eric V. Riley Jr. at Stuart Cinema and Cafe in Greenpoint, and its depth and density made me want to stay for a second screening.
In 2003 Detroit, just before the Northeast blackout in August of that year, young Eric is spending his days with the curmudgeonly Grandpa, waiting to reunite with his mother, who dropped him off. He is unaware that she has been incarcerated, and there is only so much longer the secret can be kept from him. The seams threaten to burst any moment, especially when on the night of the blackout, an otherworldly event happens.
From the very first dolly swish to Grandpa smoking while he watches television, the camera moves with the grace and confidence of a veteran filmmaker. And that gorgeous, deep black and white palette does not appear to hide budget or seem smart, but to plunge us into a world of electricity, incarceration — constant, cackling static and unknowable shadows that we cannot possibly hope to ignore. These diametrical forces overwhelm and surround us the entire film, visually and aurally, ready to be taken out by the eventual (and beautifully understated, cryptic even) alien invasion that causes the blackout in this world — and nearly takes control of Eric.
The filmmakers’ confidence on display here does not end at a technical level. Positing the American carceral system — its lingering effects, unquestioning brutality and seemingly omnipresent nature — as akin to a cryptic alien invasion is a thematic approach that holds its heft for nearly the entirety of the runtime. It is, frankly, an ingenious spin on a classic genre that also breathes through its characters’ existing in a constant sense of fear, speculation, and confusion, rather than a didactic approach that would lose its potency.
Rather than tell you what to feel through diatribes, or over-explain the eventual alien presence, Some Kind of Heavenly Fire allows you to experience a family trying to live sanely in a country that constantly tears them apart, where Eric’s mother was taken away remorselessly.
As Eric and his grandfather struggle to make sense of that constriction around them, whether it’s constant news reports and radio sounds, or navigating a jailed family member, the best they can do is ponder and worry. But, as the climax eventually posits, Grandpa’s acknowledgement of Eric’s mother’s terrible truth might be enough to at least get them through another day.
Grandpa constantly struggles in protecting Eric as the alien invasion closes in, but the script is considerate enough of its audiences’ intelligence to never spell its parallels out.
That can also be credited to the marvellous sense of time and place on display here. Our Detroit here feels inexplicably human, human touch prioritised first and genre trappings second; a scene with Eric hanging out with friends is a particular highlight, as is one when his younger uncle visits and almost spills the beans on his mother (both moments are also quite funny to boot). Between the bigger plot moments are grace notes such as these, so that the eventual scene of Eric almost being abducted feels like disruption more than plot progression; and when that alien force returns, we have come to see the neighborhood as a breathing, living setting that is as historical as it is evocative.
Having been the same age as Eric in 2003 myself, I can feel the tension of a post 9/11 world in harsh black and whites when the dark skeleton of the United States began making itself more present than ever. The filmmakers and writers are Detroit natives, and you can tell.
For such an organically free-flowing film that foregoes narrative shortcuts or amateur tropes, the eventual reconciliation (in which Grandpa finally admits to Eric that his mother is not in some mysterious ether, but in jail) comes a little too quick, and is resolved a little too neatly. Perhaps that lies in the fact that the short is a proof of concept, though I would have loved to see that final confrontation stretched out, messy and chaotic; our country’s penal system makes it so.
But that critique still does little to deter the quality of Some Kind of Heavenly Fire, and I look forward to spending time in its fully-realised world — assuming the feature-length version of this short makes it to the big screen one day soon, as it should.
Some Kind of Heavenly Fire
Directed by Eric V. Riley Jr.
Screenplay by Eric V. Riley Jr. and Jasmin Joseph
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