Updated: Aug 31, 2020
Two white friends try to talk about race.
One of the most admirable aspects of writer/director Alexander Christenson’s moral thought experiment is that it trusts the audience to let the film find its feet. Christenson’s short drama about a woman attempting to console her best friend through a moral crisis while simultaneously grabbing a much sought-after dress minutes before the shop closes, takes great pains not to telegraph its conclusion. Instead it opts for a long and complex exploration of not just attitudes toward race but internal rationalisations, playing out over the course of a phone conversation in one long scene.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the film is that the inciting incident that sparks the crisis that drives the story is not really an incident at all, only a realisation. Our main character, Madison (Celeste Arias) is given the unenviable task (or so she thinks) of convincing her best friend Chrissy (Auden Thornton) that she is not racist after she reveals that she wants to break up with her ‘on paper’ perfect boyfriend because she does not want to be with a black man. This is coupled with Madison being put under a time restriction as she struggles to find, try on and purchase her sought-after dress for an event that evening before the store closes.
While the incidents and circumstances are rather innocuous and seemingly low stakes, by couching the story in the priorities of Madison in that moment (buy great dress and make best friend feel better) then coupling those stakes with a time restriction, pressure is created. With those two elements so deftly applied, Christenson expertly creates a perfect storm for drama, forcing Madison to make decisions under pressure thus revealing character. And therein lies the genius. Madison trying to find a rationalisation to reassure her friend that she cannot possibly be a racist because she is a good person, leads her to realisations of her own.
The conceit that forces this exploration into the potential innate racism of our two main characters is an interesting one, but it is the performances of Arias and Thornton that really make it work. Thornton in particular approaches the task of having to convey anger, fear frustration and shame entirely through a voice performance with a level of commitment that shakes both Madison and the viewer out of their apathy or casual disconnection. What first seems like paranoid hysteria slowly begins to sound like uncomfortable truth.
This plays perfectly into Arias’ performance as Madison, who does a fine job aligning the perspective of the viewer with her own. Her ability to gradually alter her levels of intensity is key to infusing tension into the film. She brilliantly guides the tone of the film as she shifts from light-heartedly coddling to frustrated and forceful and eventually to defensive.
By refusing to align to the tenets of a tidy narrative, A Phone Call From My Best Friend almost forcibly holds a mirror up to the assumptions of those who believe themselves free of the moniker of racist, stripping away the safe associations of Hitler, KKK or slave owner. Christenson, Arias and Thornton succeed in asking the hard questions and pushing for honest answers.
Coming at a time when questions like these need to be asked the most, this is a film that encourages us not to be complacent about our occupation of the moral high ground. Equal parts uncomfortable and arresting, this is a highly recommended watch.
Studio: Alexander Christenson | Year: 2020 | Genre: Drama | Duration: 13 Mins | Suitability: Mature
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