Pretty People

By Shelby Bartelstein | Drama
A woman indulges in casual hookups. But her best friend gets jealous.

Rachel and Greg have been best friends for some time. They have undeniable chemistry, but for most of their history, they’ve avoided acknowledging their feelings for one another.

But one night Rachel indulges in a casual and unexpected hook-up, which sparks Greg’s feelings of jealousy. Finally, they are forced to speak about how they feel for one another — the whole fat truth of it all.

Writer-director and lead actor Shelby Bartelstein’s warm, rawly honest romance short exists within a familiar milieu, covering the emotional terrain of young singles living in a city, away from families and navigating their own independent lives and relationships. The sexual tension that exists between two long-running friends — and then comes to the surface — is a classic narrative situation as well.

But both setting and story in this particular narrative center on a character that audiences don’t often see as the lead in romantic stories. And this offers a fresh opportunity to speak raw truth to what it feels like to be a woman who is larger than socially desired while exploring the universal vulnerabilities that exist in all of us.

The writing that forms the foundation of the story is stellar, quickly and economically establishing the relationship and rapport between Rachel and Greg and then carefully constructing dialogue to fill in just enough background information for viewers to understand what’s at stake. The two-hander structure keeps the story focused, as does the rich, shadowy handheld camerawork and editing, which possesses a sense of understatement and sensitivity.

The writing’s ear for how these characters speak as individuals is sharp, but what’s powerful is also what they try to avoid saying to one another. Both actors in the film — Bartelstein as Rachel and actor Sean Kleier as Greg — have undeniable affection for one another and a deep familiarity between them, but they also play the subtext well, with their attraction to one another bubbling underneath their interaction. But at the moment it comes to the surface, so does the difficult conversation they’ve avoided for years.

The truth that comes out between them is both deeply vulnerable and raw, giving “Pretty People” an undeniably muted yet poignant ending. But there is also something inspiring in how Rachel insists on authenticity, both in how Greg speaks to her and her own existence in the world. She carries herself with a matter-of-fact, unflinching acceptance, and she insists upon the same from her best friend.

In the final moments of “Pretty People,” viewers may come away with a sense of missed opportunity and a lost chance at something potentially extraordinary — but also that, while this is undeniably hard for Rachel, she can move ahead with no regrets, finally knowing the whole truth and truly setting herself free.

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