NBFF 2016 Review: Winter Light And Lightning In The Hand

WINTER_LIGHT_film_still_RaymondJBarry_barFor this last post concerning my coverage of the 2016 Newport Beach Film Festival, I wanted to take the time to dig into some of the short films presented. Thanks to a lovely programmer, I was able to attend a couple shorts programs. A few in particular really stood out and while it is great to see short films in general, I want to specifically get into the two shorts that functioned as westerns; each of a different sort.




The first short to mention is Lightning in the Hand, from director Joey Grossfield. At only fifteen minutes, this film gets down to business pretty quickly, even while playing with a deliberate pace, as westerns tend to do. The film concerns a rival businessman (Kevin Wiggins) and a Marshal (Samson Snell) attempting to force a woman (Kristen Rakes) to sign over her father’s farmland.

As stated, this is a short film, so Grossfield really has to work hard at providing us all we need to know about what is going on. The format essentially allows for a classic western scene to take place, getting us right to the maximum level of tension we would like to enjoy. The results are quite good.

There is some commentary concerning Native Americans, as Nakotah LaRance plays Ulysses, a teenager working for the farm who is caught in the middle of things, but the film largely relies on the idea of who is in power. The performances are fine, but the best thing that comes across is the level of tension that builds, as the film gets closer and closer to its breaking point.

One could see how Lighting in the Hand feels like a smaller piece of a puzzle and I can only imagine how things would play out in a feature length version that adds way more context. The film does not quite reach the heights of John Ford, but one could certainly imagine what an increased budget could do for a film that already feels pretty accomplished in such a simple setup.


Interestingly enough, the last short I saw at the festival was a fitting end. Winter Light is a great contrast to Lighting in the Hand, as it is a modern-day revisionist western, placing emphasis on being pushed to your limits, despite trying to handle things with reason. The film features Raymond J. Barry as a retired college professor who confronts two hunters on his property, where things then escalate in an interesting way.

Matched against Lightning in the Hand, which was made to look as it was set on a mostly barren frontier, Winter Light was filmed in the snowy forests of Montana. This is where author James Lee Burke set the short story this film is based on and director Julian Higgins made sure to preserve that same atmosphere. It paid off, as the film is beautiful to look at. It also helps to build a tone.

The short originally debuted in 2015, which was fitting given all the other westerns that had arrived that year. Winter Light joins in with The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, Slow West, Bone Tomahawk and others, making good on being different from the bunch. I am a fan of seeing filmmakers try something with modern-day westerns, as the stories usually reflect some interesting themes that help sell the concept. Here we see the story of a man who is not one for violent confrontation and watch as he has to make a move into territory likely unfamiliar to him.

Barry is great in this role, as he plays a more soft-spoken character than many may be used to seeing after his more recent turns in film and TV (he’s a real nasty fellow on Justified). The demeanor is a good change of pace when it comes to seeing a certain type of western hero and that is appreciated. It also plays well against the role filled by Vincent Kartheiser, among others we meet in this short.

The chilly finale was a great way for this film to wrap up. It also plays as a great conclusion to the shorts I saw and how fittingly it matched with Lightning in the Hand, given the space of time in which I saw these two. Making room for short films can lead to seeing some great work and I was fortunate to find some interesting thematics at play in these two short westerns, which also looked great.

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Click on the poster to visit the Newport Beach Film Festival website,
and be sure to check back to Why So Blu throughout the week
for more of my coverage of the festival!

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