Nata Metlukh pokes fun at social cues misfiring with a fun house-mirror reflection of our social incompetence
Ukrainian-born, San Francisco-based animator Nata Metlukh has employed her colourful, comic sensibility on a range of topics. She's used her unique sense of humour to portray the challenges of immigration in Paper or Plastic, embraced absurd storytelling in the bizarre travelogue Pura Vida, and indulged in stream-of-consciousness silliness through her ongoing series of looping GIFs. Her most recent film, 2020's awkward, borrows elements of all those, making for what's probably her most satisfying film to date.
Like Anna Mantzaris' Enough, awkward is a series of vignettes depicting surreal versions of unpleasant incidents. Where Enough is all about indulging in fleeting impulses, though, awkward is about the moments we'd rather forget. Each sequence is an easily understood example of moments where social cues misfire and embarrassment ensues. There's the awkward dance of two people trying to pass each other on the street, a misunderstood greeting, misplaced anger based on faulty assumptions—all taken to absurd ends, but otherwise skin-crawlingly relateable.
There are a few choices which make the film stand out. First is Metlukh's illustration style. Where her previous films used extremely stylized characters in bright, unnatural colours, awkward's cast is much more natural looking. Even still, the designs are loose and exaggerated; they're fun to watch even when they aren't doing much.
Then there's the structure. As Metlukh outlines in a making-of post on her website, the film doesn't really have a story, but it does follow three rules that help it hang together:
- Everything happens during one day, and events in the film go from early morning to midnight.
- There are the same two characters in the beginning, the middle and the very end, progressing in their awkwardness.
- In the climatic shot at the birthday party all the characters gather together.
Not all those choices are immediately obvious—the progression through the day registers unconsciously, but it's not something you're likely to think about on a first viewing.
There's also a warmth to the film. As awkward as the encounters are, it never feels like Metlukh is taking shots at anyone. It's more a feeling of shared commiseration, encouraging the audience to laugh at their own social incompetence by showing it reflected in a fun-house mirror.
Metlukh's next film is a celebration of fonts due out later this year, and judging from the trailer, she's continuing to push her style in new directions. She's struck an impressive balance so far between maintaining a recognizable style and pursuing consistent growth, so you can understand why we're excited to see what comes next.