At this point it’s definitely silly to be frustrated by the Academy Awards’ treatment of animation, but nonetheless: in yesterday’s Oscar broadcast, the presenter of the animated films categories once again introduced the nominees with a backhanded compliment. Animated films are the first movies kids see. Then you realize they’re more sophisticated than you first noticed, and you’re eager to see your kids experience them. But despite the presence of Jeremy Clapin’s decidedly not-for-kids I Lost My Body in the feature category, and the inclusion of heavy, heady subject matter in the majority of the nominated shorts, it never crosses the Academy’s mind to introduce animation as a medium that tackles all subjects, for all age ranges, with an expressiveness and imagination that extends far beyond the boundaries of live-action filmmaking.
What does all that have to do with today’s short? Well, Tomek Popakul’s Acid Rain is easily one of the most acclaimed films in recent memory, and especially of the past year. It picked up jury and audience prizes at heavy-hitting animation festivals from GLAS to Zagreb, to Fantoche and New Chitose (the only reason we didn’t bring it to GIRAF was that we knew it’d be playing Calgary the week after our festival at the Best of GLAS screening). When CartoonBrew asked a group of leading directors and industry figures their favourite shorts of the year, Acid Rain was at the top of most of those lists. Ask the Academy what animation is, and they’ll tell you time and again it’s for kids. Ask the people who live and breathe independent animation, and they’ll point to Acid Rain.
So, what makes Popakul’s film so striking? A story set in the Eastern European rave scene of the ’90s doesn’t immediately jump out as fodder for animation, and Popakul goes out of his way to keep the proceedings grounded and natural. Unlike a lot of the films this series spotlights, it’s a story that could have been told through live action.
But that’s sort of like saying a comic could have been a novel. The story would’ve been the same, but the telling is entirely different. There’s a feeling and a mood that comes from the blend of flat, vivid ’90s colours with the deathly pale faces of Young and Skinny, the film’s central characters. Even without knowing the story, just seeing those designs perfectly captures the characters’ swings from hedonistic excess to anemic existence. The motion captured movement adds an uncanny naturalism, its realism only making the film more surreal, like a waking dream. Imagine the oil-slicked rainbows of Acid Rain‘s psychedelic segments in anything but animation; it would be next to impossible to make that feel authentic. Here it just works.
In an interview with It’s Nice That, Popakul compares the film’s central relationship to Bonnie & Clyde or Heathers, and while those touch points are absolutely present, the filmmakers that came to mind while watching Acid Rain were the Safdie Brothers. The constant ratcheting of tension, the feeling that the film isn’t so much a narrative as a force of nature sweeping you along, the note-perfect details that make the world feel lived-in and authentic–even the propulsive score wouldn’t be entirely out of place in Uncut Gems.
Acid Rain isn’t a fantasy, it’s a bad trip, a half hour of alternating bliss and paranoia that’s ugly, absorbing and hypnotic in equal measure. No shocker that it didn’t make the Oscars’ short list, but don’t let that fool you: it’s easily one of 2019’s best.
dir: Tomek Popakul
syn: ACID RAIN is set in post-industrial Eastern Europe and follows a young woman who runs away from her depressing hometown. That’s how she meets Skinny – a kind of unstable weirdo who lives in a camper and runs his not-so-legal errands. Their journey gradually leads them towards more and more eerie settings, revealing the attraction and repulsion of rave culture.