Within seconds of meeting the titular character of the 2017 short Candice, viewers are given a swift and seemingly definite portrait of the woman. By the end of the film, we may not be so sure we’ve got her — or anything, for that matter — figured out.
Indeed, for a film that apparently centres its protagonist and her problems for all to witness, Candice (written and executive produced by Alexei Slater, and directed by George Watson) is ultimately more interested in a sleight-of-hand; and although made in 2017, it eerily foretells the way we have come to collectively rethink perception, reality, and human connection.
When we come upon her having late-night drinks with friends at a bar, thirty-something Candice (played brilliantly by Olivia Poulet) looks like a woman indisposed. An enjoyable evening this is evidently not: she is quiet, seething. After listlessly checking her phone, she abruptly decides to cut the evening short, her friends’ protestations trailing behind her. The short’s title emerges onscreen as she stalks down the sidewalk as if implying this is who Candice is. Irritable. Unhappy. A mess.
We very quickly see why, as Candice leaves an angry voicemail to a philandering lover named David. Soon after, she halts by a shop window and verbalises her state of despair to the faceless mannequin behind it. A man, seemingly come out of nowhere behind her, commiserates: referencing the mannequin, he confesses “I ask her advice sometimes too.”
And just like that, the film takes a turn.
Immediately wary, Candice makes a hasty retreat, but despite her sharp verbal warnings, the hoodie-wearing man keeps calmly walking behind her. What started as a bad night looks like it might get worse. Her anger and fear escalate the closer she gets to home, until eventually, Candice whirls around, confronts the man…
… and finds herself in an embarrassing situation. It turns out that he isn’t following her at all, he just happens to live in the same apartment complex. Worse yet: not only is he Candice’s upstairs neighbour, he also reminds her that he helped carry her keyboard up many flights of stairs when she recently moved in, and that he remembers her name from a card she gave him. That he is a Black man makes the implication of Candice’s assumption more than awkward — it is downright painful.
Overcome by this terrible misunderstanding, Candice breaks down in tears and the man, named Greg Harrison (Nicholas Pinnock), relents. Despite the late hour, she persuades him to go for kebabs, and over food they realise they have much in common, including bad relationships. When they walk home, this time together and arm-in-arm, the atmosphere is decidedly warmer, the evening ending on an almost tender note. The lesson, if unspoken, is nonetheless clear: assumptions can be wildly misleading.
Candice is startlingly reminiscent of Adam Davidson’s award-winning short The Lunch Date (1989): both deal with a skittish woman who makes a wrongful judgement, both feature a Black man who chooses indulgence in the face of misunderstanding, and both have characters who share a meaningful meal. But whereas The Lunch Date is trying to make a point about racism, Candice is a bit more ambiguous — and therefore, striking — to watch after 2020, when uncertainty has been so pervasive.
From the film’s title to the camerawork (close on the heels of Poulet throughout the first half), the story indicates that we’re in her shoes. When she starts stumbling away from Greg and the camera gets shaky, the tension palpable, we feel that fear because it is hers. But upon second viewing, once the misjudgment is seen for what it is, that indication becomes less absolute. Greg comes into focus in the latter half, his hoodie no longer obscuring his face, his body taking up as much space as Candice’s in the shots. He is the one we last see on our screens. It’s as if the characters have been playing a game of narrative relay, passing the mantle — and the respective significance of their stories — between them.
The film emphasises this by playing with tropes that are instantly recognisable to us viewers, especially if we’ve watched any major news story of the last few decades: the woman who wields her white privilege, the man who harms women at night, the solitude and disappointments of modern-day city-living, the Black man with a hoodie accused of being threatening …
Interestingly, in Candice it is not a matter of either/or, but rather, of and. Instead of asking us to choose which reality takes over the other, it puts those stories side-by-side, letting us take in this dizzying, complex panorama. Yes, there’s a high likelihood that a man walking behind a woman in a darkened alley may try to harm her, and yes, there’s a high likelihood that a person of colour walking by a darkened alley may be profiled at random.
This isn’t complexity for the sake of complexity, however. In this interchanging of roles, perception, and significance, what Candice really wants is to examine how we see, how we are seen, how we appear and disappear from each other’s consciousnesses.
At the height of the altercation, the characters’ individual reactions point to a profoundly rooted sense of alienation, and it is impossible to watch this after 2020, a year marked by unrelenting anguish, and not immediately read between those lines. A melancholy permeates everything, from the outset, and it goes beyond the more immediate complications presented to us (unfaithful partners, terror at being followed).
Candice is lonely-in-a-crowd-of-people. Unmoored. Defensive. Deserted. The first few shots present a bar comfortably packed with people, a sea of warmth, and she is a silent island at its centre. In the darkened alleys of Roman Road, she stands out with her pale pink blouse. She is simultaneously quiet when others are speaking, and desperate to speak. She spends her evenings playing a song on her keyboard Greg describes as “depressing.” Those closest to her are so oblivious to her pain that she resorts to confiding in a street-shop mannequin.
On the other hand: if Candice embodies lonely, Greg is alone, and Pinnock, subdued and stoic, plays the part excellently. Unlike Candice, with her friends and fickle lover, there is no one framing Greg when we meet him. He comes in like a darkly-clad ghost. Where has he been, wandering by himself this late at night? His isolation seems deliberate, like he doesn’t care much for company. He reacts to Candice’s panic and her subsequent fumbling apology wearily, like he’s been through this before. He initially declines her invitation to mend things over some food. When he does eventually cave, he is guarded, doesn’t eat, preferring to ask questions rather than answer them. Even when he reveals that he, too, has been hurt by a lover, it seems less like a show of vulnerability than a justification for his solitude: “you invest in people and they turn out to be this or that.” Where Candice’s gloominess doubtless stems from many an unfortunate betrayal, Greg’s hardness is a learned one, presumably taught early.
And yet, because this film is so steeped in ambiguity, further probing suggests other interpretations. One could argue that Greg is the lonely one, and that Candice has just as much reason for choosing her isolation. We get a sense that she prudently withholds from those around her, letting walls down only when she thinks she is alone. She finds true solace by herself, or in inanimate objects that couldn’t possibly answer back, like her keyboard and the mannequin. She knows to carry rape whistles and pepper sprays, to get aggressive when strangers talk to her. She is a woman, after all, and she unfortunately understands self-preservation.
Greg, however, is gracious in a way that suggests he wants to let people in. Beneath his stoicism, he looks haunted, defeated. Sad. Although he is the injured party, he makes excuses for Candice before she’s even done apologising (“it’s late, it’s dark, I’m dressed like this“). He goes out of his way with her to the café just to watch her eat, and listen to her speak. Greg is evidently used to stepping in other people’s shoes without considering his own discomfort. Maybe he’s just compassionate, or maybe he’s so desperate for connection that he’ll suffer company, any company. He, too, has been speaking to the mannequin, as he casually tells Candice, but it rings differently. He’s given it a name, maybe even a backstory. This points not to a spontaneous act, but to a habit.
In a year where grief has made isolation even more inescapable than it already was for many, these details stand out, not as throwaway plot points, but as genuinely wistful and relatable ones. Many a solitary person has chosen a pet, a book, a plant over a person. Many a disenfranchised person has preferred little-to-no interactions over potentially offensive and hurtful ones.
That is not to imply that this is a sad film — rather, it is a film about sadness that says profoundly tender things about human connection. This is where that aforementioned sleight-of-hand emerges. We are initially thrown onto the path of misleading assumptions and appearances, onto trying to figure out these characters. Even the title says behold, makes us look in the titular woman’s direction. And yet, the core of Candice is ultimately unbothered by those identifying markers, and more focused on what makes a person a person.
Greg remembers Candice’s name, not because it is remarkable, but because he remembers her. Other names are similarly suggestive: Greg calls the mannequin Angela because “she looks like an Angela.” He muses “I knew a David once, he was a tool,” when Candice mentions her terrible partner, and admits “there was a Davina,” when probed about his own doomed relationship. Strangely, although their conversation is evasive, it is all the more intimate. These names are unimportant, archetypal even, merely stand-ins for personal truths that have marked them indelibly.
In this way, Candice embraces anonymity and the mutability of labels, not in order to hide, but in order to lean into the essence of a person. Right after he tells her he can hear her “depressing” music every night, Greg tells Candice “but you’ve got a nice voice.” As if saying I hear you and have always been listening. Similarly, Candice’s immediate apology upon realising she’s been a “dickhead” also says I hear you and will listen better.
At their respective starts, Candice is drowned in a crowd and Greg is a floating ghost. But when the hubbub dissipates, so too does the alienation. We are offered a glimpse into the kind of attachment that isn’t necessarily dependent on how many are around us. It certainly isn’t conclusive: Greg and Candice’s newfound affinity may go the way of friendship, it may end in romance. We don’t even know that their choice to let their mutual guard down will prove to be worth it long-term. They may both be too broken and cynical to yet again, “invest in people.”
Still, Candice asks. It asks us to consider what momentary connection can look like between two people — alone, isolated, lonely — when all cards are on the table. It asks us to consider a kind of bond that is more enduring than the one physical proximity hasn’t allowed us in months. It asks us to consider vulnerability, asks us to consider that people can still surprise us: and after 2020, this could not be a more timely, and more poignant message.
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.