Although it has yet to premiere in Chicago proper, one of the most impressive Chicago-made shorts of recent years is Jack and Anna, a Columbia College MFA thesis film by the Russian-born writer/director Ksenia Ivanova. Since premiering in 2019, this poignant and impeccably crafted 15-minute period drama has screened at dozens of festivals around the world, including the prestigious Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, and has deservedly picked up multiple awards in the process. If there is any justice in the universe, Ivanova’s movie will receive the Chicago red-carpet premiere it richly deserves when the coronavirus eventually blows over and its festival run resumes. This would only be fitting given that the cast and crew consist entirely of Chicagoans who should be able to see their work on the biggest screen possible.
Jack and Anna takes place in Colorado in 1913 but tells a story of intolerance and same-sex marriage that feels globally relevant today. The theme of (in)justice is introduced in the opening shot of a judge’s harsh eye, which is trained, in a cool-hued courtroom, on defendant Helen Hilsher, a young woman accused of “impersonating a man” for the previous two years. The narrative then flashes back to depict happier times in the relationship between the tomboy-ish Hilsher (living as “Handsome Jack” Hill) and one Anna Slifka, who were married and owned a farm before their secret was discovered and they were legally forced apart. Kate Smith is superb as Helen/Jack — her courtroom scenes could draw tears from a stone — but Brookelyn Hebert is equally affecting in the less showy role of Anna: Her non-verbal reaction shots are a masterclass in understated screen acting. These performances, like the movie’s impressive technical specs, ultimately transcend the “student film” designation.