Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Megan Seely and Mamoudou Athie in Puddysticks
"An unashamedly odd little film which carves out a space of its own, Puddysticks has both intelligence and heart."

Most mammals play throughout their lives. They do it more when young, when it’s important for learning, and less as adults, when they have to prioritise food, reproduction and safety, but they don’t reject it for social reasons. Humans are unusual in stigmatising it, in treating it as something that they cease to need. Of course, that attitude is more prevalent in some societies than others. It’s well suited to ideologies which value individuals primarily for their productivity.

Liz (played by writer/director Megan Seely) dreams of making it as a game designer, but her creative spirit is being crushed by the daily grind at Brain Dead Games, where a dull voice on the tannoy reminds everyone that they are “in the business of making fun,” the emphasis being on business. These comedically exaggerated early scenes set the tone for a film which uses elements of surrealism to challenge viewer expectations and present some quite radical ideas within the framework of a light comedy.

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Trying to find a way out of her predicament, Liz is drawn into a group of people who deal with the stresses of life through play, without worrying about age. There’s a clinginess about them which immediately rings warning bells, and she’s creeped out by group leader Sylvester (Dan Bakkedahl), but is there something dodgy about him or is it just that he lacks social skills? Setting her concerns aside gets easier when she sets eyes on the handsome Peter (Mamoudou Athie), she soon finds herself making friends and enjoying this lighthearted, welcoming space where, every now and again, somebody will feel empowered to confess an embarrassing secret, and a real burden will be lifted.

At least one of these secrets is Seely’s own, adding to the very personal character of a film whose impact on you will depend in large part on how you feel about Liz. She’s young, confused, overburdened and underconfident, but although it will come as no surprise that not everything about the group is as it seems, the experience of play really helps her, lightening her spirit. It’s a pleasure to see her change like this, and it also has a bearing on the plot.

Despite the cult-like dynamics of the group, Seely is careful not to take us anywhere too dark. This is partly about preserving a spirit of hope and optimism which is rare in genre cinema today, and had a positive contribution to make to the atmosphere at Fantaspoa 2024. It’s also about keeping the focus on the interpersonal dynamics in the group, which are where the interesting stuff happens. It soon becomes apparent that Sylvester has a complicated relationship with childhood and, though posing as a father figure, uses childish strategies to try to maintain control. Liz must draw on such strategies herself in order to set things right. In the process she will learn how to take risks like an adult and begin to create the future she really wants for herself.

An unashamedly odd little film which carves out a space of its own, Puddysticks has both intelligence and heart. It leaves the impression that Seely still has a fair bit of room to grow as a filmmaker, but if you’re in a playful mood, it’s worth catching.

Reviewed on: 20 Apr 2024
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A burned out young woman joins a secret society of traumatised adults who heal through childlike play.

Director: Megan Seely

Writer: Megan Seely

Starring: Megan Seely, Mamoudou Athie, Dan Bakkedahl, Valeria Cotto, Danny Deferrari, Devin Druid, Josh Fadem

Year: 2024

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: US


Fantaspoa 2024

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