Miller & Son

By Asher Jelinsky | Drama
A transwoman mechanic tries to express herself at her family's auto shop.

Ryan works in the family-run auto shop, following in the tradition of becoming a mechanic just like Dad. Ryan is talented at the craft of auto repair, with an ease and fluency with the ins and outs of engines. But only when she’s not at work can Ryan tap into a whole other side of her identity, a femininity that feels just as essential to her self as her work.

But the careful architecture of Ryan’s life comes crashing down during one night out, and the partitions between Ryan’s different lives are breached. The balance skews Ryan’s life, challenging her sense of safety and perhaps changing her relationship in the family and the business.

Writer-director Asher Jelinsky’s stunningly observant drama features a trans character in the lead role, but the narrative is less about gender identity and more about the way we all compartmentalize aspects of ourselves — and how that compartmentalization doesn’t necessarily lead to a sense of wholeness and integration, but instead a fragmentation that gnaws away at a person’s inner equilibrium when it comes apart.

The film’s visuals capture Ryan’s central dilemma, showing the two parts of her life with distinct approaches. The daytime auto shop is shot with a more narrow aspect ratio, with gritty muted colors, lending those segments a washed-out, constrained feel. But Ryan’s nighttime life is full of pulsating music, color and a wider compositional eye, and it feels full of possibility, liberation and pleasure.

What links the two approaches are the excellent craftsmanship, from the pared-down, psychologically astute writing, the deft pacing that’s driven by Ryan’s internal arc and the intimate, precise directing that never loses sight of Ryan’s emerging dilemma, or the way that a shared glance of recognition becomes a huge crisis in a life governed by compartmentalization.

The other common factor is a fantastic central performance by Jesse James Keitel as Ryan. Full of undeniable screen presence and a kind of emotional luminosity, Keitel captures every unspoken, flickering nuance of Ryan with subtlety and precision. They capture a certain watchful recessiveness central to a character that can’t fully express herself in all aspects of her life and must always remain observant, calibrating self-expression with every changing context. This quality co-exists beautifully with an easeful confidence and competency at work. Keitel’s ability to play multiple levels of thought and emotion becomes useful as the film edges into its final movement, generating a suspense and tension that is quietly unbearable for both Ryan and the audience, as we wonder what the consequences are when competing “lives” collide.

Shortlisted for the best live-action short Oscar as a winner of a Student Academy Award, “Miller & Son” could easily veer into one direction, but instead, it segues into a different, quieter grace note of an ending. It’s poignant and painful in a much more softly-spoken way, but the emotional tenor is more truthful to the film’s deeply psychological exploration of identity and segmentation.

The narrative travels a deeper, more resonant emotional journey than expected, and though the words exchanged in the final scene are few, they will knife at the collective heart of the audience with their terribly human longing and yearning. We all want to be seen, heard and understood for who we truly are; we all want to belong and be assured of being loved. But what price do we pay in our attempts to reconcile two sometimes heartbreakingly opposing needs? The film has no certain answers, but its emotional impact makes such questions linger long after the final haunting images.

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