There is a long tradition of American actresses becoming directors (including figures as disparate as Ida Lupino, Elaine May and Barbara Loden), often in order to give themselves better roles than what they’ve typically been offered by their male filmmaking counterparts. This trend has gratifyingly ramped up with a renewed urgency in the “Me Too” era: Among the very best short films to play Chicago cinema screens over the past year are urgent, female-centric works like Clare Cooney’s Runner and Maggie Scrantom’s Atoms of Ashes, both locally made. Magnolia & Clementine, a 16-minute short by Tennessee-based actress-turned-filmmaker Ashley Shelton, offers welcome proof that this is a nationwide trend. It’s a potent dramedy about an aspiring writer (Shelton) who throws a short story in the trash but is later mortified to learn that her live-in boyfriend (Linds Edwards) has stolen the concept when his own “original” story is published to acclaim. Anyone planning on attending the Beloit International Film Festival this weekend — where Shelton’s movie will screen on Friday, February 22 and Sunday, February 24 — would do well to check it out.
Magnolia & Clementine is, as one would expect, a great showcase for Shelton’s talents as an actress. A veteran of film and television in front of the camera, she does a lot here in a short span of time (plays a dual role, cries real tears, plays drunk, etc.) but the film ultimately delights because of her very real skills as a writer and director. Shelton understands the importance of pacing in film comedy: Many of the biggest laughs result from her cinematography and editing choices — whether it’s an eyeline match between the protagonist and an image of Jesus, or ending a scene with the “punchline” of a close-up of an empty roll of toilet paper. More importantly, Magnolia & Clementine starts off as a comedy but unexpectedly morphs into a poignant tale of self-discovery, a Chaplin-esque tonal balancing act that Shelton pulls off with admirable precision. What begins as a story about a relationship between a woman and a man ends up being about a woman’s relationship with herself as she learns to overcome her insecurities and fully declare herself an artist. There could be no more fitting subject for a filmmaking debut as auspicious as this one.
To learn more about this weekend’s screenings of Magnolia & Clementine, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Beloit International Film Festival’s website.