SFFILM Review: Over/Under
From my own critical perspective, one of the hardest tasks in cinema is making a movie that rests on the shoulders of child actors — for every great child performance out there, there’s at least two so grating that they threaten to undermine the whole endeavor. Setting aside the truly incredible feats (i.e., Haley Joel Osment in both The Sixth Sense and A.I.), guiding young actors into merely solid-to-strong performances immediately marks a director as one to watch in my eyes. Enter Sophia Silver and her directorial debut Over/Under, a film that features two such performances and brings to mind both Eighth Grade and the recent Petite Maman in the process.
Working from a script co-written with Sianni Rosenstock and based in part on their own childhood experiences, Silver does an excellent job of making relatively small stakes feel weighty without straining narrative credulity. The plot-light Over/Under follows two best friends, Violet and Stella (Emajean Bullock and Anastasia Veronica Lee), from the critical ages of 9 to 13. Their families both spend vacations in New England, where the girls attend camp and have sleepovers, before returning to different parts of California where they face the trials and tribulations of adolescence independently, changing and growing at different paces and in different ways in their time apart.
Spanning multiple years over the course of a scant 88 minutes, Silver and Rosenstock’s script smartly turns insecurities about growing up into the backbone of the narrative. Major life events for the girls’ parents pepper the film throughout — illness, marital strife, etc. — creating an underlying rationale for heightened anxiety at times, but for the most part the focus remains squarely on the sorts of challenges that feel most salient to a child: changing bodies, bullying and peer pressure, friendships evolving and devolving. Though Violet and Stella’s external surroundings may not be universally relatable, their internal conflicts are more often than not, despite the well-crafted touches of specificity. The casual cruelty of children, the pain of not growing up at the rate you should be, the worries about friendships fading — you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t had a similar experience, and Silver uses that knowledge to play on the audience’s natural empathy.
As the two girls, Bullock and Lee are impressive — rarely wooden, full of what feels like genuine emotion and spontaneity. At first I was worried that it might be a misstep for the film to span a relatively large age gap with the same actors, but I quickly came around: not only does the script (and the smart, unshowy editing by Yu Jung Hou) provide a believable progression, but Bullock and Lee are able to transform their characters in recognizable ways that capture the essence of how we remember growing up, even if the technical accuracy isn’t quite there. Though the film may be a little thin at times, occasionally trafficking in cliché, there’s no denying that the final result moves, satisfies, and succeeds in putting its director on the map.