By Emile Schlesser | Drama
A young man with Down syndrome is bullied as he fights for his one true love.

Max is a young man with Down syndrome who arrives uninvited to his childhood friend Tess’s party. He and Tess were playmates as kids, but now they have grown up and Tess is moving to New York. So Max summons up the courage to say goodbye and profess his love, dressed up as the superhero he and Tess used to play when they were young.

The party is raucous and Max does not fit in. When all goes wrong with this plan, he decides to do something to impress her and demonstrate his courage — something that will show he is a superhero after all.

Written and directed by Emile Schlesser, this compelling, textured short drama-fantasy has the romantic terrain of long-time crushes and confessions of love. But through the impressive skill and deft craftsmanship of its storytelling, it achieves the dark, pulsing tension of a thriller, balancing suspense and emotion while weaving in moments of transcendence in unexpected places.

The premise reads on paper as romance, but the moody, saturated color and lurid lighting of the nighttime party setting paint a world of decidedly grown-up debauchery, with gleaming shots of drinking, hooking up and partying. The dynamic, restless camera movement and editing border of almost out-of-control, capturing a sense of a rager that careening wildly off the rails, and each beat of the story constantly builds upon the next.

Within this world, Max waits for his moment with Tess, out of place and alone in his superhero costume. He doesn’t quite fit into Tess’s world, but he has still summoned up the courage to talk to her one last time before she leaves. In an achingly vulnerable, almost painful scene, he manages to get a quiet moment alone with Tess, though the sweet sentiments of his confession are interrupted by the party’s increasing wildness.

The performances are especially masterful in capturing both a shared past and affection and a distance wrought by time and life itself. Actor Maria Dragus captures how Tess oscillates between an innate protectiveness for Max, an impatience at being pulled away from her life and an embarrassment at the situation itself and how her friends may see it. Tess is pulled in many directions, and Dragus makes the balancing act sympathetic and human.

But the beating heart of the film is actor Nico Randel, who plays Max’s feelings and drives with directness and clarity. He wears the mask of a superhero, but he is the only character who is truly himself, and who speaks from the heart with affecting straightforwardness. But his sentiments are brushed over and he is shunted off to the sidelines, and then he must watch Tess kiss another boy. Feeling jealous and perhaps hurt at how he’s treated, he asserts himself with an act of courage — one that goes horribly wrong.

The ending of “Superhero” takes the story in an unexpected direction, using the trope of the superhero film itself in a unique, almost metaphysical way that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. The film language of superhero spectacle doesn’t overwhelm the audience with bombastic sensation but instead creates a poetic, even spiritual experience of the liminal space between life and death. In doing so, it leaves us with an unforgettable ending that will linger in the hearts and minds of viewers well after the film is over, with a sense of awe more tragic and tender than found in most superhero films today.

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