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The Circle of Life

A beautiful, remarkably insightful and yet extremely uncomfortable lesson in parenting, Jim Cummings’s short Thunder Road, the winner of 2016 Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize and NoBudge Award for Best Film, is an impressively executed, exquisitely acted, single-take cinematic wonder you will not easily forget.

As clichéd as it may appear, there are times when suffering can lead you to something wonderful. Over two weeks ago I hurt my back badly as a result of unhealthy desk-job lifestyle and way too much of ten-month-old-child-lifting. As it turns out, it can happen just like that. Anyway, I had to spend the night on the floor with a quilt and a pillow as my only companions. And my laptop, of course. I was basically immobilized and exasperated, with a strong painkiller, applied by a medic we had swiftly called after the incident, making me gradually feel at ease with the whole situation. And yet I was not sleepy at all. So, I browsed the internet. What else?

It might have been fate, or maybe just a Facebook algorithm which ways I will never understand, but I found myself interested in NoFilmSchool’s post “Watch All of the 2016 NoBudge Award-Winning Short Films Right Here.” I love watching short films, there are literally hundreds of gems waiting to be discovered and be amazed at, but normally I would bookmarked the page and continue my meaningless scanning of the web. But I went for it, for some reason, and after a couple of fine, cleverly produced short films I decided to watch Jim Cummings’s Thunder Road.

I couldn’t sleep for a couple of hours after.

I mean, what a masterpiece of short form filmmaking! It is less than thirteen minutes long, it was shot in a single take in a place called Mountain View Mortuary, and it basically consists of one actor rambling on about his deceased mother on the day of her funeral while his surprised family and the late woman’s friends are watching all this with mixed emotions. Or, a more apt description would be that it is a performance-driven short film which enables you to imagine the whole lifespan of mother-son relationship that will, sadly, influence father-daughter future relationship.

A little too cryptic? Not at all. In a second you will see it for yourself. But let me say this, throughout those thirteen minutes of the splendidly performed monologue of the grief-stricken son, with a clever addition of Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road, Jim Cummings touches upon so many important and universal themes that I wanted to give him a one-man standing ovation after the end credits rolled. I could not do it, though, because of my back, but the laughter, the tears, and the moments of uncomfortable realization I felt during the film’s short running time will stay with me for a long, long, long time.

Before I continue with my own rambling on, you should watch the film first.

Thunder Road from Jim Cummings on Vimeo.

The omnipotent view of the whole event that Cummings offers to the viewer, being able to watch it without any editor’s interference, makes it incredibly bittersweet. Yes, because of the emotional content of the monologue. Yes, due to the candidness of the performance. And yes, as a result of the ending with the cop’s daughter.

The way I see it, parenting is as much about learning from your mistakes as it is about doing what you think is right and best for your kid, with a fleeting hope that in the future he or she will appreciate all of those more or less educated guesses you made. To some extent, at least. That your child will be able to lead a good life, equipped by you with all the necessary tools required to be who he or she wants to be. Or, to adopt the metaphor used by Cummings, that your child will take his or her thunder road lightly, partly because of what you taught him or her.

Jim Cummings singing with hands thrown apart, still from Thunder Road

Jim Cummings, still from Thunder Road

But the thing is, you never know what will prove correct or valuable, what good intention will become a mistake, what mistake will miraculously lead to some of the best pieces of advice you have ever given. You cannot predict the world in which your child will be brought into adulthood. Find romance. Experience suffering. Learn from his or her own mistakes. You just never know, it is impossible; parenting is like going through the dark with only your instincts and love and passion and values and traditions you received when growing up as your match or flashlight.

That is why the performance of James the cop (Jim Cummings) is so extraordinary and incredibly poignant at the same time. He gave all of himself for the sake of saying goodbye to his mother he felt he had inadvertently failed, but who might have had a completely different opinion on that matter, judging from how he described her in his own words. It was beautiful and honest and courageous of him. But in the process he may have had inadvertently harm his child’s way of seeing him in the future; a little girl who loves her daddy but who just does not understand that she can be proud, not confused, of his ’emotional stunt.’ That it is a valuable lesson for her and everyone trying to cope with loss, or simply with feelings that are too strong to handle alone.

The daughter’s reaction is so believable and heartbreaking – the whole funeral may be a blueprint for her future when after many, many years of giving her father hell, the once-felt angst will finally make her feel ashamed. And at the same time inspired to be truthful about her emotions. Even if that may be too late. It is always too late, am I right?

I am ashamed of many things I did as a child (fortunately, though, I do not remember many of them). Of many horrible words I said as a teenager (I feel I remember most of them too well). Of numerous disappointing decisions I made – and sometimes still make – in my adult life which may have saddened my parents (even if I try to rationalize some of those choices). I hope they know that I am sorry, that I begin to understand them better because, being a father, I start experiencing this painful circle of life myself. But it is always so difficult to utter some words when speaking one on one.

When watching Thunder Road, and I have already watched it a couple of times, I feel I recognize every single emotion going through that man’s head, even though I probably do not know even half of them. When watching Thunder Road, I feel horrified, uncomfortable, and yet strangely reassured; that I am, to certain extent, a part of something bigger than myself. Which is the weirdest possible feeling when watching such a film, but it is what it is.

I hope I will be able to withstand with pride and dignity the inevitable future scoffs with my daughter. As well as be able to pass on to her (even if only subconsciously) this knowledge that I know how she feels because I felt the same when I was her age. And that she should not be ashamed of it, even though it hurts and feels shameful at times. I hope I will be able to let her know somehow that I was trying to be prepared to be unprepared for this bittersweet circle of life.

And all of this from a less than thirteen-minute-long short film, shot in a single take, with one guy rambling on about his feelings. Cinema can be such a beautiful thing.

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If Thunder Road made an impression on you, you may consider watching this video in which Jim Cummings explains many aspects of how the project was made.

SUNDANCE2016 from Jim Cummings on Vimeo.

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  • Jim Cummings

    “The best music is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with.” – Bruce Springsteen

    • I couldn’t agree more, though for me this something is definitely film.