By Will Niava | Drama
3 misfits encounter a troubled man. Then it escalates beyond their control.

Three wild misfits — Amos, Slim and Santos — are out on the town at night, drinking, smoking and causing a ruckus. Amos goes along with the antics and participates in the banter, but deep inside, he wants to escape his neighborhood.

When the trio stops at a shop late at night, their paths cross with Alec, a troubled off-duty cop with his own private problems. When the shop closes, Amos asks Alec for rolling papers — only for the incident to lead to a misunderstanding that escalates to the point of no return.

Written and directed by Will Niava and produced by Alleck Doxer, Anthony Galatti and Adam Hodgins — this powerful short drama tackles police brutality, a topic that has permeated the news and inspired a growing number of short films. But “Zoo” is distinguished from the usual naturalistic approaches by the visceral power of its craftsmanship and the non-judgmental intimacy it allows with both sides of the central event, making for an immersive, unforgettable storytelling experience.

Shot in Montreal, Canada, the film’s power lies in the sheer command of cinematic art, leveraging all the tools of the medium to place us into the minds, sensations and experiences of its characters. Simply put, it’s often a marvel to watch and feel, with lurid, beautiful colors, sweeping dynamic camerawork and captivating use of sound and music. Eschewing the straightforward and classical, movement, sound and image capture the nihilistic exhilaration of the three boys, woven with moments of druggy, slowed-down lyricism and reflection.

The editing at the beginning offers a fragmented patchwork of moments, and we understand this is how the boys experience life: piercing beacons of vivid sensation shooting off amidst disorientation and despair, as voiced by Amos in a spare voiceover. The performances, too, stand out, even in this impressionistic approach. The actors playing the boys — Amos Nzamba, Ian Contreras and Brendan Sheehan — have a believable rapport, while Nzamba has a slightly more thoughtful remove as Amos, as if he’s already detached himself from the situation.

The storytelling becomes more straightforward and observational when the boys stop off at a convenience store for rolling papers. Their paths here intersect with Alec, who viewers also see navigating his own disorientation. While many viewers will guess what happens next — it’s sadly a story that we know all too well — the sheer force of the filmmaking, the urgency of the performances and the sensory intimacy of its sound and visuals make it unpredictable, distressing and dangerous.

Riveting and almost hallucinogenic in its power — as well as a selection at the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival — “Zoo” captures the skewed power dynamics and the simmering resentments of situations like these, albeit with a fascinating non-American lens. But it also helps us understand, with stunning immediacy, what it means for a situation to escalate, just why it spins out of control and how fear can hijack our ability to stay grounded and in control of our reactivity. The roles of victims and perpetrators switch back and forth in “Zoo,” and ultimately the shifting dynamics give the film an unvarnished and non-judgmental perspective — and insight into how, when pushed to extremes, we can so easily lose sight of our humanity, no matter where we stand.

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