All the Marbles

By Michael Swingler | Action
A young boy challenges a bully to a game of marbles as precious as gold.

Jamison is a young boy living in a world where marbles are as precious as gold. He manages to win the most treasured, precious marble of them all, but it’s stolen away by a villainous bully named Wolf.

But Jamison is determined to win back his marble, confronting Wolf on his own turf. He goes into the match of marbles aiming to get back his prize, but he comes out with something much more than he anticipated.

This magical fantasy short film — directed by Michael Swingler and co-written by Swingler and co-lead actor Carl Petersen — is a richly imagined children’s tale blending a Victoriana, almost steampunk sensibility with the emotional fears and concerns of young children that will nevertheless resonate with all ages.

There’s a heightened feel to all the elements of craft, with the visuals and sound blending a Tim Burtonesque theatricality with attention to dusty, antique detail and a terrifically emotional score. This beautifully realized world is captured in burnished cinematography that adds to the “out of time” quality of the story.

The performances, too, have a theatrical quality fitting the nature of the material, though the film knows when to slow down enough to allow viewers to see decisions being made and feelings being processed. And as the villain, Petersen clearly relishes playing the role of a bad guy who relishes in his villainy, and there’s a pleasingly arch touch of Malcolm McDowell to his performance.

The fantastical fable-like quality of the film could run away with itself, but happily it exists on a foundation of solid writing and storytelling, which never lets it get too flooded with flights of fancy for comprehension.

The narrative has the challenge of building a world and solidifying a good amount of background information (as well as delivering a good amount of dialogue in rhyme.) But despite the many elements it’s balancing, it pays assiduous care to pacing and character, never overwhelming the young viewers the film is aimed towards. And by the time Jamison plays his final marble, it all comes together in a highly satisfying ending that makes all the craft and care invested into this short gem worth it.

Oscar-longlisted as a winner at the Dances With Films festival, “All the Marbles” offers viewers a journey into a wonderful, imaginative world so immersive that it’s hard to believe the film is only 17 minutes long. Like many children’s films, the ending is triumphant. But like the wisest of children’s stories, it offers a smart, wise lesson in emotions and how to see the world.

Jamison learns that confronting your bully — or your fears — isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about questioning the nature of the game itself, the rules and very mentality of a bully trying to control and manipulate others with fear into a particular dynamic. By upending the dynamic, Jamison changes the stakes of the game for himself, refusing to play the role that the bully wants him to fall into — and instead being the person he wants and chooses to be.

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