By Michael Mante | Drama
A troubled young man stumbles upon a creative community and gets to know their leader.

Hansen is a troubled young man grappling with what appears to be panic attacks and nightmares. Isolated and alone, he self-medicates with drugs to ease the stress and tension.

One day he stumbles upon a creative community group, who have taken over a warehouse space and are building various furniture and other woodworking projects. He's intrigued by their sense of calm, purpose and community. But he's defensive when the leader, Sam, sensing a situation similar to his own, reaches out to him. They have a searching conversation, one that may prove the helping hand needed for someone who keeps pushing help away.

Written and directed by Michael Mante and produced by Jennie Scott and Jamie Gamache, this short drama focuses on the decision of a young man to seek help and change his path. He's helped along the way by the perception and compassion of a fellow Black man, who sees beyond Hansen's wariness and hostility to his buried pain, as well as his true potential.

The film is shot on 35mm with a watchful, patient naturalism, with its slow, observant camerawork and a richness of color and shadow that only celluloid can give. Scenes play out in long takes with deliberate, steady pacing and very few cuts. It achieves visual dynamism from reframing and staging actors within the scene, and the continuity in performance and image make for an introspective, inward-looking mode of storytelling. It allows a lot of breathing room for characters to feel and think, and for viewers to feel a depth of intimacy with them.

The craftsmanship mirrors the narrative's emphasis on interiority, which looks at questions of how we connect to others as well as ourselves -- a process we commonly call self-awareness. Hansen's journey is internal, but its arc from denial and defensiveness to acceptance and openness is rich, brought to life by a tightly wound but expressive performance by actor Ola Orebiyi, who oscillates between haunted turmoil and subtle yearning as Hansen. The drama comes to life when Sam -- beautifully played by actor Michael -- tries to pull Hansen out of his shell, only to encounter Hansen's anger. But Sam chips away at Hansen's resistance, offering empathy, as well as a challenge to move beyond his isolation and truly help himself.

Thoughtful, subtle and resonantly compelling, "Sandpaper" goes deep into the interiority of its Black male characters. While it acknowledges the toll that social context has on them, the central focus is on the psychological toll that trauma can take, and nearly anyone can relate to how we can build almost impenetrable fortresses around our fears and vulnerabilities.

But as Hansen comes to learn in "Sandpaper," we suffer from this isolationist approach. The balms of healing for him -- and perhaps for many other people -- are the courage to be honest with one's self, accept that we need help and then let others in. In a crisis, we often want to hide, but in these times of need, community and connection are sometimes the greatest tool in helping ourselves.

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