Gowanus, Brooklyn is quite possibly the best you could hope for early aughts digital video short. Director Fleck and cinematographer Chris Scarafile know the limitations of the medium. Some of those limitations are seemingly self-imposed—if a scene isn’t obviously handheld, it’s because Scarafile was standing really still that shot. Since the short is so traditional—it’s basically a legit after-school special, like something “Sesame Street Junior High” would do—only with a complicated ending.
Tween Shareeka Epps catches her coach and something or other teacher Matt Kerr smoking crack in the girls locker room after he’s closed up for the night. She gets a ride home and a burger and fries out of it. Director Fleck and co-writer (and producer and editor) Anna Boden take a hands off approach to a lot of the story. It’s one of those “oh, the answer’s from a better world” moments. Only they don’t end on that positive sentiment, they go about fifty percent on it just so Epps never seems in danger and use it all the time. All the time. There’s also a message in the short about gentrification and it’s very hard not to see it as a perspective on Epps and not from her. The short is very much the story of this girl and this weird time in her life but it’s not the girl’s story. Gowanus examines Epps. It describes her, instead of her informing it. The narrative distance is inverted and leveraging the heck out of 2004 digital video verisimilitude; the short never exploits Epps—going out of its way to never do so (it’s so safe, so safe—but in a good way)—but sometimes it seems like the scenes are constructed more for that purpose than ever to do actual character development. Gowanus is comfortable throwing things in Epps’s way and watching her get through them… but refusing to examine her reaction to them. Everything in the short is tailored around Epps’s performance, which is great—she’s excellent—but it’s also a bit too safe. Fleck’s not willing to try anything. He never wants it to look too video, just video enough.
Kerr’s good as the teacher. Fleck’s not willing to take any chances with him either. Everything’s so controlled. And it’s masterfully executed. I’m reluctantly enthusiastic about Gowanus, Brooklyn because it’s got such a strange feel to it: the hyper reality of the video, the pseudo-intrusive nature of the narrative distance. It’s as perfectly made a short 2004 digital video could a 2004 digital video short be, positive proof a short video could hold up for twenty minutes.
I’m so glad it didn’t catch on.
But Fleck knows how to get it to work. Epps, Kerr, everyone; they give serious performances, even when the direction’s framed around not showcasing that performance because video is so flat. Boden knows when to cut away from that flat too; the cuts seem based on when the lack of depth becomes distracting. Because you’re usually wondering if it just looked better, how much better would it be. Fleck’s ambitiously strict to reliable techniques with no interest in exploring. Gowanus is very constrained.
Which just makes Epps’s performance more impressive. Her performance is enthusiastically ambitious while the short itself isn’t.