Kate Hackett, who most recently won an Emmy for her editing work on the Netflix documentary series ‘Cheers‘, has made a short film that centers around the 17-year old titular character, Oleander.

The sex-positive YouTuber’s parents make her attend a local abstinence program, called “The Institute of Transformation”, or as Oleander (Emily Robinson – ‘Eighth Grade‘) likes to call it, “The Institute of Masturbation.” When she gets asked to apologize on-camera to the program’s mediator, Alissa (Peri Gilpin – ‘Frasier‘), for the harsh words that have been said on her provocative YouTube channel, Oleander plays along. Her outspoken vision on slut-shaming and the fundamental rights of teenage sexual fulfillment might just get turned against her, when adult filmmaker-for-hire Kim (Jennifer Lafleur – ‘Room 104‘) gets a little too close in capturing the real Oleander in her natural environment.

Hackett’s film focuses mostly on the dangers of social media, the abuse of children’s naivety and religion. Robinson plays the empowering teenager, who gives off a bit of an anti-hero vibe, but you can’t help but root for her. In an honest and somewhat eccentric type of performance, Robinson pulls you to her side. While narrating, she often looks directly into the camera as if she’s about to break the fourth wall, but it never goes just that far. Oleander seems to enjoy acting out, as if it gives her some sort of extra power over the adults who are constantly trying to control her. Her popular videos have attracted the wrong audience, and in some weird way of transactional revenge, the story becomes quite a dark cautionary tale of mental abuse.

Gilpin is just as impressive as the evangelic mediator, delivering a steady performance, while Lafleur, who films the abstinence meetings for a promotional video, plays the outsider who’s not falling for either Alissa or Oleander’s tricks. Both of them unknowingly try to win over her confidence in different ways, since they’re adversaries in the messages they bring across. Lafleur plays the part tremendously cold, even when she’s faking her way into Oleander’s close circle. In the end you can’t fault her character for doing her job, and ruthlessly doing what she’s been paid for.

Where the main themes of religion, media and trust collide with sex, ego and power, the film has a way of balancing all of them into one satisfying whole. Hackett’s emotionally charged short film is directed with a clear vision that tries to influence the viewer with what’s really going on onscreen and how she’s able to deceive us with a plot that’s not just as cookie-cutter as it may seem.

Hackett’s exceptionally intelligent story ends on an astonishingly somber note. Robinson’s convincing performance is compelling and leads the other two in this successful contemporary film that feels naturally important in the world we live in today. Oleander makes you look beneath the surface, to find the underlying subtext that really makes you think while the end credits roll by.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Short Film Review – ‘Oleander’

Reviewed online (screener shared by publicist), October 16, 2020. Rating: TBC. Running time: 14 min.

PRODUCTION: Producer: Kate Hackett. Executive producer: Melissa K. Dagodag.

CREW: Director/screenplay/editing: Kate Hackett. Cinematography: Arlene Muller. Score: Ariel Marx.

WITH: Emily Robinson, Peri Gilpin, Jennifer Lafleur, Mike Coleman.

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