Thistles and Thorns opens with a girl (Madison Vance) going into a forest preserve after school. Vance is practically beaming as she does, which doesn’t initially make sense—when she’s walking on the street—but does once she’s in the forest, looking around at all the nature. She goes to a rock formation and gets a storybook out of a hiding place. She starts reading the book (Thistles and Thorns) and the action moves into the book.
The lead of the fairy tale is Yazmin Monet Watkins, who’s on a hero’s quest. Watkins also narrates the short from this point, reading the fairy tale. Watkins’s reading style is storytelling, excited by the text, so even though Vance has disappeared from the screen, Thorns feels like someone is reading it to her, being told to her; the story has a life of its own. It takes a minute or two for Watkins’s narration to really sell that tone. The transition between Vance and the fairy tale she’s reading is pretty sudden, even with the visual cues.
And Watkins’s narration is somewhat detached from the onscreen action. There’s no dialogue from the characters on screen, just Watkins reading the dialogue from the fairy tale. It also takes the narration a moment to catch on because the direction of the fairy tale itself is so fantastic, there’s not room to think about anything else, especially after director Acheson starts moving the camera. When the fairy tale starts, it seems like Watkins is moving through a realistic forest. As real as the one Vance entered at the beginning, albeit a fairy tale one. But Thorns’s set design is expressionist and entirely shot in profile. Acheson will move the camera behind Watkins but it’s always temporary, it’s always going to move back to that profile shot, showing this imagined landscape. The way the camera is always in a tracking shot makes Thorns feel like a story book being read, the action always being revealed from the right side of the screen, which works really well juxtaposed with the narration.
Watkins’s quest has a nice moral and a suitably positive, expansive finish for the tale. The direction, Watkins’s two performances, and the production design make Thistles and Thorns something special.
Directed by Kalie Acheson; written by Yazmin Monet Wakins and David Vieux; director of photography, Kyle Stryker; edited by Ethan Coco and Charles Latham; music by Dre Babinski, Selina Carrera, and William Collela; production designers, Acheson and Latham; produced by Acheson and Latham for Animi.
Starring Yazmin Monet Watkins (Assata), Kelli Wheeler (Hummingbird), Himerria Wortham (Fox), and Madison Vance (school girl); narrated by Watkins.