For many of us the American Dream is just … a dream. It’s the carrot on a stick, the gold at the end of a rainbow, or the tomorrow that never comes. For director Joe Talbot, it is the source material for his absurdist melodrama “American Paradise.” After premiering to much acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and winning prizes in San Francisco and Nashville, Talbot’s debut film is this week’s Staff Pick Premiere. Towing the line between fact and fiction, dream and reality, this sharp-witted short tells the bizarre true story of mistaken identity following a crime that somehow manages to challenge the virtue of America with its playfully oblique social commentary.
Opening on a group of bored fisherman waxing poetic about fortune and boats, the eldest begins to narrate a true “tall tale” about Albert, our poor protagonist with patchy hair, a squishy middle, and a need to shift his angle in life. Albert is the type of guy who thinks big thoughts, even if those big thoughts have never gotten him close to a woman or changed the fact that he lives across from a literal pile of shit. Facing a lifetime of mediocrity, he sets out to make a change. Albert dons a now-infamous latex mask to disguise himself as a bald black man and bursts into a bank to rob it, which strangely only creates the least of his problems. He soon realizes that entering into a new body means new expectations and new customs.
“American Paradise” was a balancing act for Talbot for many reasons, chiefly because it was his first film with a real budget. “The first day I got to set, I looked around and saw this huge crew — some longtime friends, some seasoned veterans whom I’d met days prior — and they were laying track, assembling the camera, setting up tents for hair and makeup,” Talbot says. “I walked off and just cried for a minute.”
One of those friends who helped him keep it together was Jimmie Fails, the actor who plays the young fisherman and whose life story was the inspiration for their upcoming feature film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” Conversations with Jimmie and the rest of their creative team — producer Khaliah Neal and executive producer Tamir Muhammad — helped shape Talbot’s storytelling and style. He likens the process to working in a writer’s room, where serious things are discussed alongside workshopping lines. For example, “Like supergluing the devil’s swinging balls to his ass cheeks” became “Like super glue in the devil’s ass cheeks.” It’s a process.
More than a calling card for his upcoming feature, “American Paradise” is smart storytelling that stands on its own. All of the visual elements — from the pastel color palette, to the extravagantly detailed set design and the costumes — are also on point. The camera work is precise and considered. It all adds up to make one of our favorite short films of 2017, so we can’t wait to see what he does with his feature. I’ll leave you with a bit of Talbot’s own wisdom learned through making this short. “Find the people that make you happy. When things are hard, they get you through it. When they’re annoying the shit out of you, you’re still making a movie, you lucky asshole.” Remember, paradise can be yours if you just shift your angle.
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