Selected for this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival in competition for the category of Best Student U.S. Short, director Xinyi Zhu’s Kindling written by award-winning screenwriter Sheridan Watson demonstrates that when women make a road trip film, they transform this genre into a potent feminist statement of growth and empowerment. This statement pierces through the trajectory of a seemingly delicate journey of two women’s nostalgic reunion, introspective intimacy and departure into their respective futures.
Kindling’s tale of two women starts on the closeup of a worn-and-torn photo booth picture strip of the film’s protagonists Piper (Jill Renner) and Celeste (Nicole Falk) cuddling and smooching with each other. Piper is perusing this old picture strip in her pickup truck, while waiting for Celeste to come out of her sorority house. Piper and Celeste were indeed childhood best friends who grew up together in a trailer park until Celeste decided that it was time for her to move onto a better life by getting into college. Though still anguished by Celeste’s abandonment, Piper comes around as fast as she could, upon knowing that Celeste needs someone to drive her to the city to get an abortion.
In the film’s climactic scene in front of the clinic, Kindling paints the familiar picture of a woman walking up against the clamours of “pro-life” protesters to get a hold of her own body and mind —weights of guilt on her feet, force of courage pulling her forward. In the middle of this crisis-turned-stalemate forms the real reunion between Piper and Celeste, not only as a signifier of two women standing up for all women’s reproductive rights, but a crystallisation of something more fundamentally feminine: our unparalleled strength in protecting our loved ones that have made us who we are as women within and against this maddening world.
For Kindling, the point of Celeste actually going into the clinic and getting her abortion is not an end itself, but a means for us to observe and experience Piper and her together moving through their journey— in a sense just two estranged girlfriends picking up where they left off. On the road, they drive onward and stop for rest seemingly in an escapist vacuum, but the pathos of Celeste’s premature yet already doomed motherhood keep sneaking into their trip. Laughing off the reminders from reality looming above Piper’s pickup truck, they hold onto each other for a nostalgia for their adolescent past, and into the nostalgia they will develop upon their diverging paths of adulthood.
Seeing this film, every woman would more or less start reminiscing about their own adolescence that can no longer be retrieved, and in turn gaining a sense of empowerment out-looking their futures leaving this adolescence behind. Despite this empowerment, the melancholy of growing up will be eternally palpable. We all have these mundane, poetic, highlight memories with our girls from the past: crouched in the front seats of that pickup truck, an entire car of messes crowding towards us from behind, our hands pinching cigarettes reflected in the rear view mirrors. How we have lost. How we have grown.
Kindling screened at the Palm Springs International Shortfest 2020 in competition for Best Student U.S Short
by Weiting Liu
Weiting (she/her) is a cinephile and television/entertainment/pop culture enthusiast freshly graduated with her Master’s degree in Film Studies. She is currently based in Los Angeles planning on continuing her academic pursuit in the Doctorate studies of sociopolitical Chinese/East Asian cinema. She is also passionate about freelance writing of film/television criticism regarding the topics of race, gender and intersectionality in contemporary America. Her most recent favourite films are Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Last Black Man In San Francisco and A Ghost Story. All of her social media handles are @bangsongliu, though for now she is only very active on Instagram.