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(The 24th Annual Slamdance Film Festival runs January 19-25 in Park City, UT. Hammer to Nail has you covered and guarantees more coverage than any other site. Watch us work it!)

Alienation and disconnection, loneliness and despair, separation and reconciliation: these are the themes of Birds Without Feathers, the feature directorial debut of actress Wendy McColm (Internet Famous and the marvelous short film Pink Grapefruit). The lives of six uniquely offbeat characters intersect and diverge over the course of a brisk 84 minutes, their stories overlapping in ways surprising and comic, and frequently poignant. Quick cuts, repeated spoken phrases, a mix of handheld and more artfully composed stable shots, and a score that recalls the self-referential romance of the French New Wave all combine in a heady mix of cinematic innovation that feels fresh because it is. Though narrative consistency takes a back seat to stylistic experimentation, if one gives oneself over to the joy of the aesthetic, the diegetic contrivances matter less. It’s a wild ride. Embrace it.

There’s Jo (a marvelous Lenae Day), a young woman with ever-changing wigs, who lives in the desert and records inspirational tapes that may not be hers. There’s Daniel (Cooper Oznowicz, Low Notes), the man who appears to have made the original tapes, is oddly not that inspiring a speaker, and may be an ex-lover of Jo’s. There’s Neil (McColm), who obsesses over her small number of social-media followers and struggles to get over her last relationship. There’s Sam, (William Gabriel Grier, The Conspiracy Connection), a failed wannabe comedian – because he never actually gets on stage – who is Neil’s ex. There’s Tom (Alexander Stasko), a man of indeterminate ethnicity who loves cowboy hats and Jeff Goldblum. And finally, there’s Marty (Sara Estefanos), a hospital nurse with an unorthodox bedside manner. Together, they form a delightful ensemble. They’re all looking for love, mostly in the wrong places. The film explores, in a series of loosely connected scenes, their eccentric misadventures, from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and spaces in between.

McColm has a deft touch with actors (including herself), camera and editing. Her enchantingly bizarre mise-en-scène plunges us headfirst into the character’s search for meaning and identity. I love how the women all have names that could easily belong to men, emphasizing their frantic pursuit of self (Neil, in fact, wants to be Janet). This meandering, existential journey of discovery occasionally makes a few too many elliptical leaps of story structure for everything to make perfect sense, but that is part of its charm. Life is sometimes a mystery to our forlorn protagonists, so there is intentionality to the plot holes. With evenness of tone and vision, McColm announces herself as a bold new director, and I hope this marks the beginning of many equally fascinating films to come.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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