“Stillman’s Portrait” — A Queer Short Film Review
A painter struggling to create a new showpiece, missing the key to unlock the portrait in his mind. A key that potentially is back at home with his estranged father, but requires a different self journey and an attempt to reconnect and finally reveal his true self. With a bit of an art film feel to it, there’s something special about Stillman’s journey in “Stillman’s Portrait”. But hidden behind this beautiful film is an even deeper message of acceptance; in a way, this queer short film is a reflection of writer/director Joshua Davy‘s personal life. But first, let’s dig into this week’s queer short film: “Stillman’s Portrait”.
Synopsis of “Stillman’s Portrait”
Stillman (Rob Brinkmann) is working on a commission for a new gallery show — a self portrait. After a quick sketch, a glance at himself in the mirror, he’s about to begin when a knock at the door distracts him. A woman yells at him that he only has until Friday to produce something. Once she leaves, he picks up his paintbrush and quickly adds the paint to the canvas. But it’s not right; he destroys the canvas. Later, he’s having a cigarette while laying beside his partner, Maks (Max Killough). It turns out there is a perfect painting for this debut collection. But if his dad even kept it, it would be at home — along with his estranged father whom he hasn’t seen or spoken with in seven years. A father who also doesn’t know that his son is gay. However, Stillman puts this all aside and rings his father. But his father doesn’t recognise Stillman and instead thinks he is calling about boat repairs. Stillman agrees to come by tomorrow to have a look.
Reflecting while on the train and ferry en route home, Stillman arrives to find his dad polishing Vera, the sailboat he and his father worked on for years. Even in person, his dad (David Gibson) doesn’t quite recognise Stillman. But when Stillman finally says, “Dad, it’s me.” his dad just stares at his son before throwing down the rag and walking back inside. They spout off a couple words, but right as Stillman is about to leave, his dad tells him: “Wait, have you eaten?” With things settled down a bit over a snack, they talk about what Stillman got up to after he left home: travels to Europe, working on a new show, etc. Stillman notes that he’s back to look for an old painting, one he painted right after his mom died. His dad offers to help, but Stillman tells him he won’t know what he’s looking for. But while Stillman searches through box after box in the garage, and though his old room, he gets angrier because he cannot find the painting. His boyfriend Maks calls, offering to come pick Stillman up tonight.
After another smoke, Stillman is walking past his father’s room when he spies his painting hanging above his father’s bed. While he stands there looking at it, his dad quietly walks in and places his hand on Stillman’s shoulder. Next, they get the boat ready to take her out. Having a beer on the dock at sunset, they bond even further; Stillman tells his father he can come to the city anytime he wants. Stillman’s phone keeps ringing, irritating his dad. Finally, his father tells Stillman that he doesn’t have to be ashamed of what he does; “I’ll always be proud of you.” Finally having the courage, Stillman finally admits that he’s gay. His dad just looks back out at the sunset, in silence. Stillman tries to explain he’s still the same, but his dad just turns and walks away not wanting to deal with it. Not wanting things to end badly, Stillman hugs his father — but his dad just pulls away and walks back up the dock ramp. Maks is waiting outside with the car, and embraces Stillman. The next morning, Stillman is again in his studio. Shirtless and eyeing his proportions in the mirror, he grabs his palate. With a slight smirk, he begins to paint on the fresh canvas.
To begin, I have very little to say about “Stillman’s Portrait” in the negative. If I must pick something to critique, it’d probably be the unsteady camerawork while they’re on the dock at sunset. Most likely, the camera guy was in the boat; whether intentional or not, the gentle swaying up and down from the waves was a tad distracting in what is the pinnacle scene of the short. But otherwise — I loved it! From the storyline, the conflict (inner and external), the casting… it’s incredible and very well done.
I actually enjoyed that Stillman’s father doesn’t accept his son, because it creates a tension that forces Stillman to find his own inner peace and acceptance. While he dreaded telling his father for years because he feared his father wouldn’t love him, oddly enough that dreaded reaction is what Stillman needed in order to move past his own creative block to begin painting again. No, it’s not a happy ending — but for many queer folks, it’s unfortunately still a realistic scenario after they come out. And while there are many parents who later learn to accept their gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, et al child, there often still is a period where they themselves have to process it; that alone can come across as unaccepting. Because this is a short, we don’t know where it leads. But despite the dad’s reaction, there is a character resolution that leaves us with a breath of happiness and even a bit of hope.
Visually it is just stunning! The opening scene is very artistic (ok, literally too because he’s painting…) with an initial blend of colour and the rawness of creating art from scratch. Overlaying the imagery is a piano melody that slowly builds in depth as the tension increases. We can feel the angst and frustration of Stillman’s struggle; which then is countered by the quietness afterwards as he resolves to talk to his father after so many years. Both in his studio and at home, there is the expected clutter of an artist; hundreds of sketches and paintings which equally provides drama during Stillman’s search for his missing portrait. But the dock scene is perhaps one of the best visual scenes; how can you compete with a heart-t0-heart father & son talk while gazing out over the water at a beautiful sunset? Ok, I lied — the best camera work is the final scene when Stillman stares directly into the camera as if we’re the canvas! And underneath all of the stunning visual work lies a strong cinematographic framework that skilfully moves from moment to moment.
But perhaps one of the main reasons I enjoyed this film is because of the connection I spoke of before, in how Stillman’s journey to paint his self portrait is very reminiscent of writer/director Joshua Davy’s own personal journey. In an interview and when he asked me to review his queer short film, Joshua noted that he wrote and began producing “Stillman’s Portrait” as a means to finally come out to his grandfather. Unfortunately, his grandfather passed before the film was finished. Perhaps worsening the situation, Joshua explained that after the film didn’t get much attention initially, he shelved it for a few years. However now, Joshua has come to his own acceptance of what this film stands for and is putting it back out into the world again. In a way, it mirror’s Stillman’s journey in finally coming out to his father with unpleasant results but still finding the courage, and perhaps even the extra motivation, to finally create the self portrait in his mind.
I can’t quite fathom why “Stillman’s Portrait” hasn’t garnered a bit more of a following. The story is heartfelt, relatable, and while his father did not accept Stillman’s coming out moment, Stillman still found his own acceptance. Knowing a bit more the personal connection Joshua Davy has with his story, there’s an extra level that raises my appreciation for this queer short film. Definitely find the time to watch “Stillman’s Portrait” — it’s certainly worth it!
[You can watch “Stillman’s Portrait” HERE.]
Queer Relevance of “Stillman’s Portrait”
This Queer short deals with family, seeking acceptance, and coming out — specifically when coming out to you father doesn’t go as well as you hoped. Unfortunately, this is still the reality for many and a reminder that everyone’s path is different. But it’s also important to know that even if the first impression might not be so great, such as in “Stillman’s Portrait”, acceptance is a gradual process and some people just need time.
Plot & Script: 1.0 / 1.0
Casting & Acting: 1.0 / 1.0
Directing & Editing: 1.0 / 1.0
Cinematography: 1.0 / 1.0
My Opinion: 1.0 / 1.0
My Overall Rating = 5.0 / 5.0