Hello Ma’am

By Owen Schwartzbard | Drama
A young con artist enters a stranger's home, then gets more than he bargains for.

Paul is a young Texan teen grifter looking to score some cash. His latest scam is going door-to-door in wealthy neighborhoods selling candy bars, to raise money for an invented funeral for his father.

But when one woman buys his sob story, he gets himself invited into her affluent, elegant home. As they talk, he decides to steal something while he has access inside — but then has a surprising encounter with adulthood.

Fascinating, dark and disquieting, this short drama is a textured, moody portrait of one young man’s initiation into the American dream, as he attempts to scrabble an easy way to make money. We meet our main character, Paul, as he practices an invented sob story. A voiceover unspools his door-to-door scam, a story about paying for a funeral that he’ll tell as he tries selling candy bars for cash.

There’s a jaggedness to the storytelling, particularly in the film’s first half, which shows Paul getting caught up in the exciting but schizoid swirl of the scam that he and his partner/boss are perpetrating. In mixing in camcorder footage with moody, naturalistic live-action, the film conjures up both the feeling of memory — the story takes place in the 1990s, and the mixed-media technique and the musical score harken back to the golden age of indie cinema at the time. But there’s also a sense of scrappy discontinuity and subversion that gesture towards Paul’s entrance into a morally murky milieu in his quest for easy money.

The storytelling is at its strongest as it settles into its second half, which is focused on a masterful, complex scene between Paul and his potential scam target, a well-off older woman named Diane who seems to fall for Paul’s story. She invites him into her large, affluent home, where she seems eager to hear Paul’s story.

As Paul attempts to sell his story, he strangely becomes pulled into a quest to prove himself as a wily, grown-up individual and not as a guileless child that the woman assumes him to be. Actor Tyler Holmes as Paul has a skillful responsiveness that flickers between the wariness of a streetwise delinquent persona that he’s trying on and the unnerved young kid that he is, while actor Diane Worman as the woman extends both a practiced graciousness natural to a woman of her station and a strange neediness that could, at first, seem eccentric. But as Paul seeks to exploit his access into her rarefied, wealthy world, he uncovers her secret — a shocking one that will shatter his facade of grown-up cynicism, and truly initiate him into adulthood.

“Hello Ma’am” is both a coming-of-age tale and a subversive portrait of the American Dream, where people seek wealth and affluence from any means in an attempt to live in an atmosphere of privileged prosperity and abundance. What unites both strands of the story is both a careful construction of setting, character and story and a darkness that isn’t cynical, but considered and thoughtful. It interrogates received notions of success, happiness and what it means to have everything. Paul seems to be at the beginning of his journey of upward mobility. But he soon realizes that achieving what he sees as its heights can come at considerable cost.

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