ETIENNE! PREMIERES AT NEW YORK’S reRUN
I loved Jeff Mizushima’s delicate, entirely charming, and vaguely emo-ish Etienne! when I saw it last year after its CineVegas premiere. I wound up putting Jeff in our “25 New Faces” simply because the film’s sensibility seemed so different to me. I also loved its formally-bold second-half narrative shift and director Caveh Zahedi’s last-reel appearance in a scene that could have been taken from a Peter Handke novel.
Writer-director Jeff Mizushima won the Filmmaker To Watch Award at CineVegas this year for Etienne!, an oddly sweet art film about loneliness, affection and loss that, as part of its ending, features the director Caveh Zahedi extolling on the workings of a pinhole camera. But if you ask Mizushima what he was trying to make, you’ll hear something very different. “I started out making it as a kids’ film,” he says, citing pics like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and The Goonies as influences. You see, the eponymous Etienne is a pet dwarf hamster, a lot like the one Mizushima brought in one day for the kids he teaches in an after-school program. “It was going to be like, ‘Hey guys, we made a film about that hamster!'”
Etienne! is a film about that hamster, and it’s probably a G-rated one too. But while Mizushumia says the film was approved for kids by Kids First! (the Coalition for Quality Children’s Media), they’re probably not his target audience anymore. Etienne! tells the story of Richard (Richard Vallejos), a quiet and serious man-child who bicycles around San Francisco with the pet hamster he’s told has only days to live. With French pop on the soundtrack and Richard’s red shorts, the film has a strange winsomeness to it, an affect that is deepened when, suddenly, the narrative introduces the film’s other main character nearly two thirds of the way through. Megan Harvey plays a woman leaving town after suffering an unspecified emotional setback, and her beautiful performance transforms what might have been a one-joke film into something deeper and more open-ended.
Mizushima says the emotional notes the film hits came somewhat as a surprise. “The concept was so absurd, it’s really meant for comedy,” he says. In post, however, viewers were moved by the dying hamster storyline, and Mizushima realized that the loss of any pet, even a dwarf hamster, can be painfully real to its owner. He then began, he says, to “tailor the narrative with realism to balance out the absurdity.”
Mizushima went into production on the Super 16mm Etienne! just days after graduating from Cal State Long Beach in film. Right now he’s raising money for a proper blowup and doing freelance shooting and editing for Eenie Meenie Records, whose band, Great Northern, appears in the movie. And then there are the other projects: “an Asian-American mumblecore movie” that’s been in production for a year, and a doc on the artist Lunnah Menoh. — S.M.