By Michael Killen | Drama
A little girl who cares for weak animals struggles to find a role in her big family.

Five-year-old Beth is the youngest child of a large family, growing up on a family farm in 1980s Pennsylvania. Life on the farm is beautiful in many ways, with a sense of natural beauty and the space to explore.

But the farm can also be a harsh place, where animals that didn’t serve their purpose did not survive. Little Beth struggles feeling like a small part of a large family with no role to play. So when she comes across four duck eggs, she designates their caretaker, and shepherds them to hatching into little ducklings.

But despite her efforts, the ducks can’t quite escape the farm’s unsentimental ethos, and Beth soon understands the full import and weight of her self-appointed role.

Writer/director Michael Killen — along with co-writer Elisabeth Voltz, who adapted the script from her own book “Shoebox Funeral” — unfurls its drama beautifully through gently poetic images and sensitively observed performances, creating a moving, meditative tale of innocence, wisdom and identity that is both simple and profound in feeling and execution.

The story is guided by a voiceover of an older Beth reflecting on this period in her childhood, as she tries to find her place in a large family, often lagging behind with no one seeming to wonder about her. Though there’s clearly love and care in the group, she still often falls to the margins of such a large, busy family and can’t help but draw parallels between herself and the small, weaker animals on the farm, and there’s an ache and maturity in the voice and writing that sits in the liminal space between nostalgia and reflection.

The visuals, though, transmit young Beth’s present-tense impressions, studying the world around her with wonderment and curiosity. Beautiful details of nature, a worn-in home and many, many animals fill the frame with loveliness and warmth, but the muted tones and colors keep the story from being too sentimental, adding instead an undertow of melancholy that suits this tale of deepening attunement with the realities of life. There’s an omnipresence of low-level noise in the sound design as well, giving the sense of the contours of Beth’s small yet rich world.

The spine of the film is young performer Maybrie Grace, who less plays a role than occupies a poetic space in the film’s narrative with authenticity and vibrancy. She’s wonderfully alive on screen, alert and responsive to the small details of the world around her. Her delight in discovering the eggs she later presides over is palpable, as is her devotion and attachment when the eggs become ducklings. She takes her role as carer for the weak and abandoned seriously, giving herself a purpose. But it also sets her up for heartbreak, when the inevitable happens and the fierce logic of nature takes its course.

“Shoebox” is a small, delicate marvel of a short, a film about childhood that evokes not just the pastoral innocence of Beth’s life but her own sense of self. Gentle, straightforward and humble in tone and execution, its seeming modesty belies an immense richness of feeling and depth as it traces one girl’s beginning in the search for wisdom and meaning. With heart-rending clarity, it takes on no less than the confrontation of the realities of life and death — and takes your breath away with its generous heart and grace.

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