A friend and a contributor to the Notebook has taken a deep breath of air and expanded his droll short films—which we’ve featured on MUBI—into a modest feature that is receiving a decidedly impressive premiere in Berlin. Short Stay does not feel like a bigger film than director Ted Fendt's charmingly ill-fitting shorts, but rather is more robust, fuller in passing detail and commonplace incident. In other words: unassuming, but charged. This new movie very much resembles Fendt’s wonderful shorts, which feature young people of unenunciated dissatisfaction and nearly inscrutable psychology living small scale lives full of long-time acquaintances, a few friendships, over-visited family homes, and well-trod suburban and small town strolls. Fendt is also a distinctly regional filmmaker; though based in New York, where he is a projectionist and translator, the director chooses to film in and around his home town in south New Jersey and across the state border in Philadelphia, lending his films wonderful, sidelong revelations of areas of the United States rarely seen in contemporary pictures. All of these pleasures are also to be found in his new 60-minute feature, which admirably retains the humane scale and scope of the director’s shorts, with a story built through clever concision, compassionate observation, deadpan humor, and small town anecdote, threaded ever-so-finely with subtle navigation of morals (à la Eric Rohmer) and opportunity (à la Hong Sang-soo).
Short Stay is a feature film but it feels like a short story. Like contemporaneous Canadian filmmaker Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer, which is also showing in Berlinale’s Forum, Short Stay sticks with tricky allegiance to what could be described as an acharismatic hero. Or, at least, one about whom the film discreetly avoids explanation, exposition, or talkativeness, and thus challenges the audience to understand a person whose decisions in life and in the story are sometimes confounding in their passivity. It’s not that wayward, underemployed South New Jerseyite Mike (played by Fendt’s regular actor Mike MacCherone, part of a cast of non-professionals and friends) is a confusing person, but rather that his introversion and unique style of active-passiveness will never be fully explained: he’ll tag along with acquaintances, attend parties, but never cross an unnamed threshold of involvement with those around him. We see him in New Jersey, we watch his sudden decision to sublet a friend’s flat in nearby Philadelphia and substitute at that friend’s tips-only job as a city tour guide—and are left to our own thoughts about Mike’s temporary takeover of this man's life, about Mike's uncomplaining, lumbering pace, his stoic subsistence without a girl, without good friends, without real pay or a real home. The film seeks not explanation but observation. Mike's perseverance, come what may, and characteristic combination of being at once completely at ease with the world and entirely awkward in it, is strangely beguiling in its carefully tracked, pedestrian oddity.
Short Stay leavens what could be a story of a dour person with an off-guard sense of humor and preference for brief scenes cut like the setup and delivery of jokes. The jokes aren't always there (which is also a joke), but this technique most especially primes us to take even the most everyday conversation or meeting not just as something peculiarly amusing, but also as peculiarly pointed. The sense—rhythmic, warmly sympathetic but hands-off—is that each scene and even each shot, including the many simply of Mike walking down a sidewalk or walking across a street, holds in it some crux, a crucial moment or encounter, even if not properly seen or yet understood. This is where I am called to mind both the movies of Hong Sang-soo, whose sublime lo-fi approach to local incident Fendt channels in a particularly American way; and Rohmer, who is conjured in the filmmaker’s allegiance to straight-forward technique, and the emotional tone of shooting on 16mm film in the specific milieu his characters. But in ease and casual observation, in wry construction and small detail, in humor and in building a film from familiarity and friendship into something of patient insight, Short Stay stands by itself.