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Human Affairs

Slamdance 2018 Review

Independent; 82 minutes

Director: Charlie Birns

Written by C.J. Prince on January 21, 2018 

Charlie Birns’ Human Affairs is a film about the desire for human connection within a story about surrogacy, a situation that’s intimate by nature but requires an emotional disconnect. As one character points out, the surrogacy process needs women willing to relinquish the child they’ve carried over to its parents without any “emotional complications.” Birns’ feature debut deals with one of those complicated situations, where surrogate and intended parents find themselves unable to deal with the strong, unexpected feelings springing up from the situation they’ve put themselves in. But Birns, like his characters, is out of his depth emotionally, as he’s only able to evoke any emotion from his drama in brief snippets.

Taking place over five days, Human Affairs follows surrogate mother Genevieve (Julie Sokolowski), a young French woman living on a farm in Vermont, as she arrives in New York City to stay with the baby’s parents over a long weekend. Intended father Sidney (Dominic Fumusa) is a successful playwright, and his wife Lucinda (Kerry Condon) is an aspiring actress starring in his next production. Genevieve is only 90 days into her pregnancy, and while the circumstances around her stay aren’t exactly clear (we never find out who wanted the visit or why), the situation turns messy once Sidney and Genevieve become attracted to each other.


Birns’ handling of his three central characters leaves a lot to be desired. Seconds after Sidney first appears on screen he’s checking out Genevieve, and not long after the two of them become more intimate with little sense of how they both get to that point. It can be easy to assume why: Sidney finds himself drawn to Genevieve because she’s carrying his child, and she’s lonely given her isolated life on the farm. Birns fails to convey a sense of understanding from Sidney or Genevieve in this area, leaving much of it up to viewers to figure out. It isn’t difficult to deduce, but what Birns might consider room for viewers to ponder over these characters is really just empty space. Even worse is how Lucinda’s character gets sidelined in the narrative, unaware of the affair and operating in the dark. This is a film that establishes plenty of emotions, but never makes them felt.

To his benefit, Birns gathers a strong group of talented people for his first feature. Fumusa and Condon bring a naturalism to their performances that elevate their underwritten characters, while Sokolowski tries her best to make Genevieve’s increasingly drastic behaviour look like it comes from a genuine place rather than an irrational one. Sean Price Williams’ cinematography gives a filmic quality to the visuals, and a pleasant piano-based score by Karl and Par Frid gives a refined touch.

But all of these factors work in service of a screenplay that doesn’t fully work. It only takes about 30 minutes for Genevieve and Sidney to passionately declare their love for each other, and nothing up to that point helps make their professions understandable. It’s only in the terrific final minutes that Birns pulls off something with an emotional resonance. As Genevieve’s trip in the city comes to an end, Birns closes with a lengthy sequence that plays out entirely through still photographs, and through these photos he significantly expands the scope of his story. It’s a development that comes out of nowhere and it works, taking inspiration from the likes of Chris Marker to put a small-scale story within a much bigger context. It’s unfortunate that the rest of Human Affairs doesn’t connect in the same way.

Human Affairs premiered at Slamdance Film Festival.


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