|| This article originally appeared on the blog of writer and film critic, Chris Watt
Etymology is the study of change within words, of context and form.
Never has a metaphor been more apt than in Maria McIndoo’s short film, itself a character study which follows said themes of context and form, applying them to the relationship between two characters.
Tom Wilton’s screenplay focuses on Catherine (Kerri Lynn Miller) and her daughter Millie (Delphina Belle) as they prepare for a school spelling bee. Considering the film’s slender running time of 9 minutes, the economy of the storytelling is wonderfully rich, presenting us with a portrait of mother and daughter, on the cusp of falling apart.
Catherine has ambitions for her daughter to not just succeed, but to excel, whatever the cost, be it denying Millie the use of her I-pad (a 21st century cardinal sin), a sugar rich snack, or a trip to the movies with friends. These, as far as Catherine is concerned,are distractions, keeping Millie’s eyes off the prize of being number one. And yet, as the film progresses, we become aware of a tension within Catherine, an echo of a past in which she herself was denied such things, and which has now manifested within her psychological make-up, to create a woman who is not only living through her daughter, but taking out her own frustrations and disappointments on her in the process.
Miller’s performance is brilliant, her body language all poise and grace, yet, the subtle ticks she brings to the character, are magnificent choices. Little subtle glances and, most tellingly, the ways she rubs the area around her ear and neck, clearly a shadow of a youth in which she experienced similar mistreatment.
Equally good here is Belle, utterly believable as Millie, a girl whose true drive and motivation is just to be a kid, doing the sorts of things kids do at that age. A scene in the back seat of a car, as tensions snap, allow Belle to display an impressive grasp of emotion, and hint at an extremely promising future.
Ironic, as the future is one of the driving forces behind the film’s narrative. Catherine only wants the best for her child, yet can’t see that her methods are ultimately damaging her, giving the impression that shallow interests in appearance and being Number One are more important than personal happiness and the ability to appreciate the simple things in life.
By that token, ETYMOLOGY is essentially a film about child abuse, yet, refreshingly, it doesn’t go for a sensationalist angle, as so many films about children and parents can do. This is not so much about physical scars, but emotional ones. We can see in Millie’s behaviour that she is being sent down a rocky road, towards in security and the futile quest for perfection in an imperfect world.
But the film goes further than that.
Wilton’s screenplay is multi-layered to an impressive degree, managing to bounce the concepts of social pressures and personal satisfactions off of each other, creating wonderful moments of contradiction and confrontation. It is just as important for Millie to look right, as it is to spell her words correctly, a mixed message guaranteed to send her into nervous breakdown by the time she’s 20. Societal pressures and the looming cloud of puberty are just around the corner, after all.
The film is, therefore, timely and relevant. In a contemporary society, which favours a blemish free existence, perfection is a driving factor in many young people’s lives and sets a dangerous precedent.
Catherine knows this better than most, having lived through just such behaviour with her own Mother, played by Nikki James, who in one shocking moment, excuses her past behaviour with the chilling line “You had baby fat.”
Yet such subtle, almost unconscious abuse is circular, each woman in this family doomed to go round and round, inflicting it on the next generation.
Interestingly, men don’t feature in these women’s worlds, leaving the audience to decide for themselves the reasons behind such a vacancy. It’s a bold move, at once offering a portrait of strong independence, but also hinting at a sacrifice too many, particularly for Catherine, who doesn’t seem to even be able to enjoy downtime with friends, constantly checking her image in mirrors, or adjusting her hair.
McIndoo’s direction is pitch perfect. This isn’t a film about flashy images or surreal camera angles. It has a simple, no-nonsense style, the camera as observer, allowing the characters to behave naturally within the frame, often shot against windows, bathed in sunlight.
The film makes bold choices, unfashionably painting a picture of a single mother more monster than saint, yet, thanks to Miller’s beautifully judged performance and McIndoo’s balanced, mature film making, crafting a story that is achingly human and, particularly if you’re a parent, heartbreakingly relatable.