South By Southwest
Anna O'Grady, Chris Langham, Amanda Hadingue, Will Sharpe, and Helen Cripps star in Black Pond.
Black Pond has a basic structure that's not unusual for offbeat, very black comedies (or slightly comedic dramas — whichever). It begins with a seemingly ordinary family that's seething with resentments: mother Sophie (Amanda Hadingue), father Tom (Chris Langham), their two nearly grown daughters (Anna O'Grady and Helen Cripps), and the daughters' friend Tim (Will Sharpe, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Tom Kingsley).
Into this unhappy stability is introduced an unpredictable element: a strange but gentle stranger named Blake (Colin Hurley), whom Tom meets while walking the dog and spontaneously invites back to the house. The addition of the unpredictable element leads to the upending of the family's existence. It looses Sophie's anger over having given up writing poetry to raise a family, and it exposes the cracks in Tom and Sophie's marriage. More dramatically, it leads to scandal when, as the film reveals in the opening moments, Blake dies at their home and they become tabloid figures suspected of murdering him. The rest of the film is primarily told in flashback as they recall what happened between meeting Blake and ending up in the papers.
Black Pond was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut, and that's exactly the right honor, I think. Sharpe and Kingsley appeared at a Q&A after the screening to talk about this, their first feature, and they explained how much they had to learn as they went, since they had a tiny, tiny budget. They learned to digitally insert snow. They used a number of actors they knew. They did all the post-production themselves, aside from the sound, where they were able to get help from the BBC. They explained that on their next project, they hope to do things intentionally rather than count on getting lucky as much as they did here.
There are parts of Black Pond that don't entirely work — an appearance by standup Simon Amstell as an awful therapist is very well done and fun to watch, but seems a bit disconnected from the film. And there's a bit of a double-edged sword, in that because the script and the acting are strong, the dynamics of the family are set up very efficiently. That's a good thing, but at times, it means you get the sense of circling back over the same emotional territory several times, as if to ensure that those notes have come through. I found myself musing over whether Black Pond could have worked as a long-ish short film with a couple of elements removed.
But understand, that's a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things. The look of it is stunning, its outdoor sequences are dewy and gorgeous, and the writing is sharp and disciplined. It's perfect to call Black Pond an Outstanding Debut; it's a fine film and even more, it's a promise of more fine films to come.