Watch Thunder Road, the short film that led to one of 2019’s best features

When they’re not hosting Aotearoa’s biggest short film festival, Show Me Shorts regularly highlights excellent shorts from around the world based on a particular theme. This month, they put the spotlight on three proof-of-concept shorts that paved the way for well-known feature films.

Here, Liam Maguren chimes in with his own recommendation.

What happens when a cop on the verge of a mental breakdown has to give a eulogy at his mother’s funeral and decides to wing it? You get cringe comedy at its most poignant.

That’s actor-writer-director Jim Cummings’ Thunder Road for you, the SXSW-winning 2018 feature film based on the SXSW-winning short film. The former, one of 2019’s best films so far, saw a limited NZ cinema release earlier this year and will be available On Demand and disc mid-July. The latter you can watch right here, right now.

Take the ‘comedy’ part with a grain of salt, though. As Tony Stamp wrote in his 4-star review of the feature: “Cummings walks a [fine] line between comedy and tragedy, perpetually teetering between hilarious and heartbreaking. Put it this way—I spent a large part of the film unsure if I should be laughing or not.”

That applies equally to the 12-minute one-shot wonder that started it all.

Cummings crafts this tricky, tragic character tremendously through a single monologue. Though it starts innocently enough, the centrepiece speech hits a sudden story tangent that sees him bluntly insult a special needs child. Suffice to say, it’s a big “Whoa” moment and there’s pitch-black comedy in seeing him awkwardly scramble to explain himself.

He’s a man unfiltered. Unhinged. Unwell. But he’s on this track and he can’t get off, kept in place by the well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful “support” from nearest and dearest who encourage him to keep going.

At one point, he almost explodes into tears, but quickly bottles it with a nonchalant “I’m fine.”

Another, his jaw hangs wide and helpless as if his very soul’s trying to escape an avalanche of inner torment. And then he shrugs it off with a friendly “Any-who…”

Then there’s the dancing. Dear God, the dancing…

Surely, it’s the moment people on the pews would think: “This man needs serious help.” Instead, someone from the front row pulls out a phone and starts recording him.

“Everyone mourns in their own unique way,” the MC says. That’s a nice way of expressing everyone’s utter confusion. It also speaks out to the odd conformity they shared in silently letting this man mentally breakdown in front of them, a prison built from their own politeness.

“You did great, honey.” That’s what he heard from the MC. “That was embarrassing, Dad.” That’s what he read on his daughter’s face.

In this eye of a grieving storm, Cummings finds absurdity. The way he constantly catches you off guard will guarantee some chuckles but, at the same time, it’s derived from the spontaneous behaviour of a man unable to keep himself together. That’s truly tragic and you’re far less likely to laugh on a second watch.

There’s a lot to unpack from this brilliant short and even more-so from the feature, which uses a varient of the short film’s single short as the opening scene for the larger story. It’s a perfect example of an actor-filmmaker that moulded an excellent idea, proved its effectiveness in a short film, and explored it thoroughly in a feature film.