Sometimes we just want to get away, and it doesn't really matter who comes along with us. Life has just reached an unbearable level of repetitiveness, and there seems to be no end in sight. For Leigh (Meredith Johnston), her home has become a sort of weird prison, where she spends her days caring for an ailing mother (Stacy Parish) when she should be off at grad school. Her morning cigarette and coffee seem to be the only time where she gets to cut loose, reading off the daily news to a pink flamingo in her yard with an old timey affectation that would make Katherine Hepburn blush. It's also on one of these daily jaunts that she runs into Cam (Rene Cruz), her ex-boyfriend, while he walks his little fat pug around the neighborhood. The encounter's awkward as shit (duh), but after her bestie cancels their weekend camping plans, she's stuck with a state park trip she paid for with no company. Since Cam's on her mind, he becomes the natural fill-in choice, leading to a weekend of necessary emotional nakedness (and maybe even a little physical nudity, too).
Pet Names is a quintessential SXSW premiere. Lo-fi, naturalistic, and conflict-free to an almost relaxing degree, as director Carol Brandt takes Johnston's script and milks it for 75 minutes of alarmingly real emotion. Shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, even the sunniest scenes appear slightly faded, as if we're looking at a string of moving Polaroid pictures, all telling us a wistful tale of two people who remember everything about their days together, good and bad, but are still there during each other’s most depressing hours. We're essentially hanging out with Leigh and Cam, waiting for their tiny emotional bursts to come as they ingest mushrooms, write dumbass songs on Cam's guitar, loose that chubby little fur ball, and stare at campfires, neither one of them initially able to be honest with the other.
At first, Pet Names’ 4:3 shooting style seems like nothing more than an ostentatious device, applied simply for the showiness of not utilizing a wider aspect ratio. Yet the boxy frame becomes an extension of the movie's greater themes of isolation of emotional suffocation. We feel cramped in Leigh's mother's bedroom as her daughter changes out her IV, and the stretches of silence on the car rides during the old duo's "vacation" are all the more excruciating, as the vehicle's structure seems to be caving in on the characters. The tent transforms into a tiny cave, blocking out the rest of the world as Leigh lightly strokes Cam's back, or the two accidentally wake up in each other’s arms the next morning. Brandt exploits the shooting ratio for as much intimacy as possible, as we get to know every movement and catch every glance these former lovers shoot in each other's directions.
Meredith Johnston is fantastic, never really feeling like she's "acting", but still totally putting on a show. Each gesture and motion feels lived-in and graceful, as if she's been existing with this story inside of her for some time. The way she toys with Cruz is both playful and cruel, and the young actor reacts like a wounded puppy who's tired of being jerked around on its chain. The rapport that builds between them is never rushed or forced, as we get a sense they could very well predict each other's moves, had this trip lasted just one day longer. The two truly belong together onscreen, something you can't always say when watching one of these fest-ready micro indies.
The title Pet Names might seem baffling to some, as there's nothing particularly cutesy about the way Leigh and Cam interact. However, when considered in the abstract, it becomes the perfect moniker for Brandt's work, as it indicates a level of vulnerability two people share after years of knowing one another. You only obtain a pet name from a person who you can laugh, cry, get angry, and be your truest self around. These silly brands we bestow to those closest to us are just as much marks of honor as they are inside jokes, often used behind partners' closed doors. For Leigh and Cam, we may never hear them use quirky nicknames, but they most certainly exist, because their relationship lets us - absolute strangers - take a peek inside their souls when they think nobody's really looking.
Pet Names will continue to screen at SXSW Monday, March 12th, at the Rollins Theater At the Long Center (7:30 PM), and Wednesday, March 14th, at the Alamo Lamar (10:30 PM).