Note: spoilers ahead.
We open onto a deserted street at night. A man meticulously cleans his car, his floor mats, his dashboard, from the evidence of dust and piled-up cigarette butts. The thorough task finished, he sits in the driver’s seat and fixes a lit-up balcony ahead, until he falls asleep. The quiet moment is precise, taut: beneath his careful movements, there is indication that something monumental is happening, has happened, will happen.
So begins Stationary. Written and directed by Louis Chan, and produced by Jonathan Caicedo Galindo and Alexei Slater, the British short film is seemingly small in scope. Most of it takes place in a parked car, and features only three characters, siblings Che (Rebekah Murrell) and Gino (Xavien Russell), and Jimmy (Aaron Thomas Ward), who has set up the gathering. On the surface, the occasion is casual, merry. Jimmy, who hasn’t seen Che and Gino in years, seemingly has his life together: unfettered from his old drug-dealer ways, and having overcome the alcoholism that apparently runs in his family, he’s gone to university, owns a car, is sober. Gino looks to be on an equally rosy tangent: he is thriving socially — he is, as a matter of fact, on his way to a party — and has just learned that he, too, may be going to university. Che lounges in the backseat of the car and nonchalantly observes the bantering.
It is clear, however, that things are far from fine. Jimmy and Che’s interactions are reminiscent of those of quarrelling parents trying not to be hostile to one another in front of their children — in this instance, an oblivious Gino. They play nice, but stray remarks and meaningful glances evidence that they have not forgiven each other, or themselves, for what happened years ago. No sooner has Gino exited the car (Che sharply sending him away on an errand), that all pretence is chucked aside.
Jimmy and Che are former drug-dealing partners. Their friendship ended five years earlier when Jimmy took the fall for Che and was sent to jail, a traumatic event from which he has still not recovered. Presently, Che has roped her little brother Gino into the same lifestyle, and Jimmy, who is drowning in palpable regret, wants to persuade her to put an end to it. It’s a clearing of the conscience of sorts, considering that he is the one who hooked Che onto drugs in the first place. Che begrudges Jimmy that he has gotten his life together in the years since, and Jimmy begrudges Che that she has seemingly not learned from what happened to him, and is destroying her little brother’s prospects. Tempers flare, the argument heats up, a difficult impasse is met, and Che, overwhelmed, storms out of the car.
If the film’s ending has the audience feeling uncomfortable and unfulfilled, it is more than intentional. Stationary isn’t interested in hasty conclusions, or in shoehorning its characters into archetypes. Rather, it fashions an oppressive enclosure around them where questions are regurgitated ad nauseam, and places the viewer squarely in the middle. We are, like Jimmy, Che and Gino, forced to wonder whether ruminating on the truth becomes erasure of objectivity, whether closure necessarily mean embracing all the shortcomings of the past, present and future, whether spoken honesty inevitably betrays unspoken vulnerability.
While much of the story is conveyed through dialogue, the things unsaid tell a more complex tale. A resentful look Che gives Jimmy in the rearview mirror while Gino talks about going to university perforates her easygoing facade. A somber look Gino gives Che when she sends him on the drug errand dampens his chipper demeanour. A longing look out the window from Jimmy underscores how deep his emotional trauma lays. Here, the Gaze emphasises what all the tempered or flustered words in the world never could:
Why are you like this.
You should have done better.
In this way, the title’s allusion to this notion of stagnation (though it could just as well be a tongue-in-cheek reference to drug paraphernalia) is a caution: exiting the metaphorical car does not guarantee escaping the painful difficulties therein. Once the audience has leant into this subtext, upon a second, third, fourth viewing, everything takes on a different connotation: Jimmy cleaning his car in the very first scene, for one. Is he simply bored and whiling away the hours before morning? Is he cleaning up evidence of something damning, his sobriety having been only loosely assumed? Or is he, like a stagehand, painstakingly setting the scene for a monumental standoff?
Che, as a character, also invites a fair share of scrutiny. By all means, she loves her little brother. It is obvious in her fierce reaction to Jimmy suggesting she is letting Gino down and compromising his bright future. But she is also very derisive about Gino going to college, mercilessly mocking him instead of congratulating him. Whether she is defensive about the opportunities she did not get, or whether she is projecting her feelings about Jimmy onto Gino is unclear, but ultimately unimportant. One watches in fascination throughout, as her selflessness wars with her self-preservation.
Similarly, time becomes a hazy concept. If this is Gino’s story, then we are at the opening credits, at a hopeful stage where everything is promised, and yet to come. If this is Che’s story, then we are at its terrible conclusion, confronted as she is with everything she could have achieved, and wasn’t able to. If this were Jimmy’s film, we’d be at the middle mark, as he contemplates a baffling crossroads — when seen through this lens, the fact that he is the only one who never leaves the car is significant.
Even further: if the car is considered a disorienting microcosm where the only defining markers are the presence of raw guilt and cruel hope, then the characters themselves come to embody the ever-moving prongs of time. Gino, for example, may be a harbinger of a promising future, but to Che, he is the carefree past she used to have. Similarly, angry and resentful Che is who Jimmy was before he changed his life. For Gino meanwhile, both Che and Jimmy represent forked roads in the present that could lead him to very different futures.
Everything is relative. Each character is wearing, has worn, or will wear the hat of friend, protégé, mentor, betrayer. Each character is, has been, or could be the other one. This is apparent even in the ways the actors move in the limited space, all throughout the film. Jimmy outside the car, cleaning it. Gino leaving it. Che moving to the passenger seat. Jimmy in the driver’s seat. Che leaving the car. Gino sitting in the passenger seat. Che reclining in the back. This dance exacerbates the space’s significance until the claustrophobia is untenable — and this, amazingly is where the film’s greatest strength resides.
The emphasis on disquiet in Stationary is fundamental, because at its core, this is a work about trauma, and trauma is nothing if not unrelenting and patternless. It has neither head nor tail, it messes with one’s sense of closure and inception, it blurs the line between healing and self-harm, it is simultaneously enduring, and fleeting. For Jimmy, forcing Che to have accountability about the damage she has caused herself and her brother is a way to course correct the hope that has been corrupted by guilt. Even for Gino, hope is a scary thing, because it promises great things he may not be up to. It is simultaneously a promised trauma, and a trauma he’s already experienced, having seen his sister go through it. Che, who appears to be hurting the most and has most openly given up, is still not rid of the influence of hope and guilt. At the end of the film, while preparing the delivery she’d ordered him to make earlier that day, Gino receives a text from Che telling him to drop it and go to his party. In the grand scope of things, it may not be much that she is symbolically giving her brother this small freedom; but in such a static space, a shift, however subtle, is monumental.
It may be tempting to write off Stationery as an excellent-but-bleak film. Its subdued tone, its difficult thematics, even its title suggest the inescapability of awful things. But perhaps this is a good thing after all. Running from and moving on is something all three characters are doing, will do, or have done: clearly, it hasn’t brought them that illusory closure. This is why, with as much clemency as it can, Stationary shows us people at different stages of that awareness, and lets them meet us, the audience, where we are.
Sitting with the past, the present, the future. Moving them around. Pushing against them. Flipping the perspective. The film suggests that this obsessive rehashing is where insight may lie. It may not help us move on, but it could bring us closer to some far-reaching understanding: and when it comes to something as elusive as trauma, perhaps understanding it is half the battle won.
by Aïcha Martine Thiam
Aïcha Martine Thiam is a trilingual and multicultural writer, musician, cinephile and artist, who speaks in film quotes and might have been a kraken in a past life. She’s an Editor at Reckoning Press and EIC/Producer/Creative Director of The Nasiona. Her poetry collection AT SEA is forthcoming with CLASH BOOKS. Some words can be found in COSGRRRL, The Rumpus, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmonauts Avenue. Find her on Twitter and on her website.