24 May

Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Ms. Cole…do you know where you’re going?”

As Sam Cole’s story in “Shudderbugs” begins, she arrives at a secluded farmhouse in Upstate New York. This is a place that feels familiar yet alien at the same time to her: her childhood home, which she hasn’t visited in so long. She was supposed to be here to celebrate an upcoming birthday with her mother. But her mother has died, due to unclear circumstances. Sam looks around the house, soaks in all the familiar surroundings and memories (her bedroom is also decorated with childhood mementos, like drawings and a broken dollhouse), and yet feels uneasy because her mother is not here, she’s not sure what to do next, she doesn’t even know what’s changed around here and what hasn’t, and she doesn’t know how long it will take to get to that particular place of certainty and comfort.

Sam Cole may know where she’s going–but she doesn’t know when she’ll be there.”Sam Cole may know where she’s going–but she doesn’t know when she’ll be there.

“Shudderbugs” puts us in Sam’s current place of uneasiness and confusion right from the start (we don’t learn much about where she’s visiting from–we can only speculate from nightly phone calls to someone back home), and it feels so much like a thriller in that sense. Because of that, when new aspects relating to the mother’s death start to pile up (such as Sam’s shady neighbor being the one who discovered the body and Sam not knowing the cause of death while continually calling for a medical examination), I think I know where it’s going.

But as the film continues, I’m more interested in what Sam is feeling throughout all of this than what traditional thriller elements I feared would come along and, while not necessarily “ruin” the proceedings, possibly sour a very interesting character study. While seeing “Shudderbugs” at the Bare Bones International Film & Music Festival in Muskogee, Oklahoma, I’m sitting with intrigue and putting my trust in the filmmaking team behind it that they had created something better than that.

I couldn’t be happier that I did stay with it, because “Shudderbugs” is a remarkably moving and wonderfully made meditation of grief, remorse, and recovery. This is the type of film I would watch even if I was going through grief myself.

I won’t go into further plot details of why Sam is here, what she uncovers, or what that mysterious neighbor Noah (Brennan Brooks) is or was up to–instead, I’ll just say how mesmerized I was by the filmmakers’ ability to balance out thriller and drama so effectively that it feels like a disservice to refer to “Shudderbugs” by either genre. It is that impressive.

Now, about “the filmmakers,” as I keep vaguely referring to them. They are writer-director/co-producer Johanna Putnam, who also stars in a brilliant performance as Sam, and co-producer/cinematographer Brennan Brooks, who plays Noah (and also quite well, I should add). They, along with a skeleton film crew, utilized every bit of their resources to make this film in a farmhouse they had easy access to, made great use of their isolated environment, and crafted a film that is purely from the heart.

I also appreciated that they included levity to even out the story’s grim subject matter. There’s a running gag involving a VA (called Brenda) that doesn’t feel forced and a subplot involving aggravating phone calls with a prying insurance agent, the punchline of which had me applauding in the theater. But there’s also a beautiful scene that begins as a lighthearted moment of frolic and ends as probably the most touching part of the film. (I won’t give it away here, but it involves a butterfly.)

We see Sam Cole struggle with so many emotions, modify so many scenarios as a result, and rise up after continuing to struggle, modify, and learn about herself and her environment. The way the story progresses and the way Johanna Putnam plays the character, I felt like I would follow her anywhere. I was pleased to follow her in “Shudderbugs” and felt grateful to be in her company, to the point to where when she left (i.e., the end credits rolled), I wished her the absolute best–wherever “Ms. Cole” may go.

I loved, loved this film, and I embrace it wholeheartedly. And as soon as it’s released via streaming, I’ll update this article so you can enjoy it too. (And you can keep track of its progress here.)


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