As the LGBTQ community explores queer narratives through music, television, and film, the dynamics of self-exploration, career insecurity, and family discourse are unearthed. Generations are embracing their queerness at a degree unprecedented to previous periods of humanity, and what better way than through a thesis project for director and screenwriter Asher Jelinsky to provide a face for a story which many are familiar with.
The Denver Film Festival’s (DFF) 42nd annual season is well underway, and on Friday, November 1, the Student Shorts: Domestic Competition had one entry which was exquisitely and excruciatingly executed. Jelinsky explored the life of a transwoman in hiding in the 21 minute short Miller & Son.
“There’s several things that brought me to the film,” Jelinksy said. “Part of it is me being part of the queer community and wanting to see more gender nonconforming characters on the screen.”
The main character, known as Ryan, is a mechanic in her family’s auto shop by day. Remaining masculine-presenting at work, she is a master at her craft and often leaned on for technological support from her father and auto repair support from her coworker. However, when the shop closes at night, Ryan is immersed in a different world where she can express her femininity with abandon.
Dancing the nights away at a queer club, Ryan finds relief from the suffocation of the masculine persona, a character that she must play in order to keep peace at work and with her family, of which there is no separation. That is, until an unforeseen event threatens her delicate life balance.
For Jelinsky, who recently graduated from the American Film Institute, LGBTQ stories are deeply rooted in who they are and they explore character-driven stories which weave intricate and nuanced relationships alongside outsider perspectives.
“I was interested in specifically exploring the feeling of compartmentalization. I think that’s something that a lot of people can relate to, whether you’re trans or not, expressing certain elements of oneself differently under different circumstances,” they said.
Miller & Son won the Student Academy Award, the BAFTA Student Film Award, and the Cannes Lions Young Director Award. The film has screened at over 40 film festivals including DFF 42, Clermont-Ferrand, and BFI London.
When asked what they learned through the process of making Miller & Son, Jelinsky said, “I didn’t know a lot about mechanics beforehand, so that was something I had to educate myself on. I didn’t know exactly how things were going to look when I started writing the script, so it evolved as I learned more about mechanics.”
The way that Jelinsky executed the camera angles of Ryan’s hands working on engines, as well as how she maneuvered through the auto body shop, gave no indication that this space was not a second home to all involved in the project.
Cinematographer Robert Nachman uses light and darkness beautifully as a way to drive the contrasting scenes of internal isolation against the ones of freedom and self-acceptance. Ryan’s sadness is dipped in a cold, blue treatment and lends space in the film for separation and silence. Not much is said in the auto shop, but it’s the what isn’t said that weighs on the audience the most.
Then, editor Selinda Zhou applies a fairytale-like softness amidst the scenes where Ryan is at last herself without censorship. She comes out of hiding, and in that moment of ecstasy, we are wishing she could be like this always.
As the short film progresses, and an event occurs which challenges not only her identity, but her safety, the balance is shattered, and we are left hoping for her to have a better life. For queer people, and even more so trans folks, isolation is often the only safety one can find.
“When we were location scouting, we serendipitously found an auto shop owned by a trans woman, and she was our mechanic consultant,” Jelinsky said. “It was a godsend finding her and also sharing that experience with her.”
Through blissful happenstance and stories like Jelinsky’s Miller & Son, multi-layered and fully formed queer characters are bringing face to the experience of self-acceptance, identity, and familial complications. Jelinsky delivers a story that is short in time but not short on compassion, as we really all can see ourselves in Ryan.