The time it takes for a story to be told can have just as much of an effect on a story as the narrative itself. In Jaime Mariscal’s new short film Dawn, we experience the pinch of time as it compresses not just a day-in-the-life of a teenage girl but an apt depiction honoring what it’s like to be young, Latina and living on the west side of Chicago. The result is 29 minutes of beginning, middle and end resembling more of an emotive state than an unfurled story. Not enough time is allowed between scenes to decompress and yet there is deceptively little to decompress—a fleeting conundrum much like the teenage experience itself. As adults, we still wonder just how we managed to act the way we did.
The film opens with a vivid still shot of what couldn’t be more appropriate: dawn sprawling out against the Chicago skyline. Kudos to director of photography Kevin Pitman for capturing such an image. The blush of an encroaching sun sprays pink and molten gold on a precious handful of shredded, undulating clouds amid a sparkling blue sky and a hazy slate gray of Lake Michigan. Skyscrapers cut the familiar meandering edge of big shoulders Carl Sandburg imagined while we imagine what’s happening in the foreground of a much closer neighborhood still shrouded in the obscuring shadows of night.
The score composed by Thomás Hradcky furthers the mood with an utterly haunting melody evoking church bells or even Tibetan singing bowls, a careful effect steeping the first seconds of this movie with a wonderful complication of detachment and contemplation that Eastern thought evokes. The sound of the El passing by adds a wonderful texture as the tones become more like a piano. Strings slowly crescendo much like the morning sun. Bird song punctuates the air. All this while we’re finally introduced to the heroin of the film, a fourteen-year-old by the name of Dawn (Kelly Medrano) who reminds us of a young Natalie Portman, has as a name a homonym that is deserving of such a well-executed introduction.
Such majesty in not even the first two minutes quickly subsides to something more quotidian and manageable as we enter Dawn’s world. The evidence of childhood is strewn across the room – a teddy bear, a photo of Dawn as a little girl, the color pink. In her first waking moments, she wanders over to a mirror to make eye contact with herself. She is here, she is awake, she is Dawn. But then she closes her eyes and enters into a mental place suggesting all at once retreat, attack, chase, youth and safety.
This abutting of the gritty particulars of reality (even though the grit might look like a teddy bear) and the lofty retreat into the imagination happens to everyone all the time; the mind wanders, the hand doodles.
For a child, however, such departure represents the mind negotiating the realm of concrete thought that’s so familiar to a child and the more adult places of the abstract. Be careful out there or you might end up like me! is a message delivered over and over again to Dawn. Does she listen? To understand the gravity of such caution, Dawn needs to understand just what is so dangerous. Dawn needs to get close enough and yet stay clear of the event horizon, the point of no return. And as we remember our own past regrets incurred during these precious teen years of our own, we wince as those same dangers emerge onscreen.
Mariscal’s greatest achievement in his storytelling has to do with the ease and efficiency with depicting such dangers and Dawn’s encounter with them. This interplay represents the pendulum-swing pulse behind not just what it means to be a teenager but why this film so elegantly captures the story it is trying to tell.