Content Warning: This review touches on the subject of workplace sexual harassment
The Sundance Film Festival is a champion of innovative and experimental cinema. The Sundance Shorts Program, in particular, is a space where new and original filmmakers are showcased. Small runtimes don’t make the films any less grand and Doublespeak is a perfect example of how large storytelling comes in small packages.
Doublespeak is written and directed by Hazel McKibben and stars Angela Wong Carbone. The 10-minute short is a feature of the Shorts Program 4 block in this year’s Sundance Film Festival. In Doublespeak, 10-minutes are stretched into an eternity of discomfort and weight as the short film plunges headfirst into topics warped perception and systemic barriers in this all-too-familiar story of a young woman grappling with sexual harassment in her workplace.
From the very first scene, Doublespeak elegantly establishes McKibben’s mastery of subtle, tight narrative. The camera is trained to Emma’s (Angela Wong Carbone) reflection in the mirror. Her face falls expressionless between practiced attempts at a smile, strained and forced. To the female viewer, there’s almost a sardonic humor to the familiarity of having to practice an expression of friendliness to combat what others may criticize as Resting Bitch Face.
This simple scene, a code that women in particular understand, sets the tone for all that follows. As Emma meets with her superiors at work, to hear her fate and judgment delivered, it is notable that Emma speaks very little. The details of this very intimate invasion of her person and safety are turned over and packaged by the two men in the room. We watch Emma’s face as these men explain away the harm done to her. There is one other woman present, an office manager, who also remains silent until given permission to weigh in by the men leading the meeting. Just as with Emma, this woman’s face is an expressionless mask. Just as with the allegation of harassment, the judgment is steeped in male perception and is inflicted on the women present.
Doublespeak has a deeper understanding of how our current culture breeds hopelessness when it comes to matters of harassment and assault. The callousness of how victims are treated is handled with a delicate touch that creates a feeling of shared intimacy between the viewer and Emma. There’s a feeling of hollow loneliness to watching Emma face this issue alone and the result is a poignant and emotionally raw viewing experience.
Hazel McKibben’s distinctly feminist lens shines in this impressive directorial debut from the 2020 BAFTA Newcomer. Simplicity is the name of the game with tight shots, tighter editing, and a straightforward stab straight for the heart of the matter. Doublespeak is grounded in painfully familiar realism and elevated with its polished, minimalist confrontation of massive issues. A scream that’s elegantly restrained.
Doublespeak premieres at 8am (Mountain Time) on January 28, 2021 and will be available on-demand to pass holders for the duration of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Caitlin is a sweater enthusiast, film critic, and lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began with being shown Rosemary’s Baby at a particularly impressionable age and she’s been hooked ever since. She loves a good bourbon and hates people who talk in movies. Caitlin has been writing since 2014 and you can find her work on Film Inquiry, The Financial Diet, Nightmarish Conjurings, and many others.