French/American female director Niav Conty made a short film called “Joy Ride” that won her the Best Director award at the Reno Tahoe Film Festival in 2017. The film featured “Small Time” star Audrey Grace Marshall riding on the back of Rick’s (Holter Graham’s) motorcycle. These characters soon expanded into the full-length second feature film “Small Time”from Conty, who wrote, directed, shot and edited this indie film set in Pennsylvania.
The film is worth seeing for the performance of young Audrey Grace Marshall, (“The Flight Attendant”) who was 7 when filming began. Over the 3 years the film took to make, Audrey grows into a beautiful, blonde 10-year-old. She is the second child actor whose debut performance I recently saw that gave the audience a polished-but-natural impressive onscreen performance. (The first was the 9-year-old star of “Belfast,” Jude Hill.)
The plot follows Emma (Audrey Grace Marshall) as she is more-or-less left to raise herself in rural Pennsylvania. Her mother, Jessie, (Jessie-Dominique Johnson), is a drug addict. Jessie overdoses and ends up comatose in the local hospital. There is a period of plot time when the audience is left wondering, “What has happened to the child’s mother?”
It’s not quite clear, at first, either, who her biological father is. In time, we find out that it is Lonnie (Kevin Loreque) a veteran with severe PTSD.
Lonnie also has a Jesus-freak mother, Emma’s grandmother, Sadie, well-played by Maria Hasen in what appears to be her first role.
The film almost becomes a “What Not To Do In Raising A Child” manual:
- Do not entrust a small, innocent child to a mother who regularly and routinely does drugs.
- Do not let a friend of the mother have the very young child help her “cook” drugs.
- Do not shuttle the child around to the point that we (the audience) are confused as to how she ended up in the living room of the Jesus freak Sadie, her son Lonnie, and Lonnie’s ne’er-do-well friends. (The fact that Lonnie was Emma’s father was unclear for quite a while.)
- Do not take the child for a walk balanced on your shoulders while she is holding a gun that is sometimes pointed at your head.
- Do not allow the child to fire the pistol at a bottle many yards away.
- Do not expect the child to apologize for bopping a bully in the nose at school, when the other girl calls her mother “retarded” and her father “crazy.”
- Do not have the minor child do drug exchanges in a local restaurant with a skeevy man, while said child is heavily made up.
- Do not put the blonde child in excessive make-up not unlike that seen in children’s beauty pageants.
- Do not offer a child under the age of 10 a beer.
- Do not let the child tie up her best friend outside and leave him there for hours.
- Do not let the child point a gun at her best friend’s head while he is tied up. For that matter, do not leave a gun under one of the pillows on the child’s bed nightly.
- Do not let the child go on numerous drug deliveries with a drug dealer.
- Do not let the child ride on the back of the drug dealer’s motorcycle.
It was at that last point that I said, “Watch. I’ll bet she isn’t wearing a helmet.”
Wonder of wonders! Emma WAS wearing a helmet! Hip hip hooray! She still doesn’t have a stable guardian situation, since the film opens with her Grandfather’s death. Apparently Gramps had inherited the task of being the responsible adult in her life.
After the funeral of her grandfather, Emma sits down next to a woman we don’t know and says, “Why are you here?”
The stranger says, “Well, he was my father.”
Now we are puzzled about what the relationship is between the strange woman at the funeral and Emma. Is this Emma’s biological mother? Did Grandpa have an older child and then father this much younger child? These are plot mysteries that we ultimately do figure out, but there had to be a better way to clue the audience in on plot points like, “Who is this woman at the funeral?” “What has happened to Jessie in the hospital? She is gone a long time from the plot and nobody seems to know or care.” “Why is there no agency responsible for checking in on poor Emma?”
The film makes good use of Camp Ballibay in Pennsylvania, producer John Jannone’s childhood home and of Towonda High School. Jannone is an important part of this film, producing, given a credit for the music; he even made it onto the list of caterers. Oren Moverman, who wrote “The Messenger” is also a producer for the film. The entire project reminded me a bit of “Shooting Heroin,” also filmed in Pennsylvania, with all of the director’s family hostessing the cast. (That was also a film about the opioid epidemic.)
This film is much more about a little girl named Emma who still loves life and believes in the Tooth Fairy, despite a series of extremely negative early childhood challenges to her normal development. She is a young actress that we may well see a lot of in the future.
“Small Time” is a noble effort and the performances are better than fine. My complaints are: (a) it’s too long at 1 hour and 44 minutes and (b) some of the plot points are difficult to figure out for extended periods.
For a first (or second?) feature film, however—an outgrowth of “Joy Ride”—it’s a noble effort by these two Brooklyn College instructors (Niav Conty and John J.A. Jannone).
It’s streaming now on virtual cinema and digital platforms.