Sleight of Hand 

5 p.m., Friday, Oct. 4, Ivywild School; 11:30 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 5, Springs Orleans

Stop-motion animation has made a bit of a comeback in recent years, with the overgrown-Goth fables of Tim Burton and the macabre-poseurdom of Henry Selick, sadly, being the most recent examples. It's a beautiful art form, when done right. But for it to be done right, it really takes clever writing and a fantastically inventive premise that uses the porous materials and herky-jerky surrealism in a way never seen before.

Writer/director/animator Michael Cusack's Sleight of Hand succeeds on all of these levels, showing in 10 minutes how to get the form right in ways that mainstream films can't in two hours.

Hand starts as a very simple story of a lonely artist who lives in a barren wasteland and constructs an animatronic, golem-esque doppelganger to make his own stop-motion animated film. Amazingly, it morphs into a brutally emotional (yet wonderfully meta) treatise on the realization that we have absolutely no control over our lives and that, in the end, we're all just someone else's puppet.

That may sound bleak, and it is, but it's an astoundingly gorgeous bleakness. Hand never once uses foreshadowing, and the shock of what is actually happening only adds to the heart-ripping quality of the finale. At the moment when the protagonist drops to his knees in the midst of this revelation, which I am desperately trying to keep secret, it's ultimately heartbreaking and devastating, leading to tears I haven't shed over an animated film since Toy Story 3. All done through no dialogue, mind you.

This Australian film actually kind of reminds me of an amazingly delicate Pixar short, made back when that company actually cared about film, and not lunch boxes featuring a truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. Sleight of Hand is a true revelation that, even thinking about now, still brings tears to the corners of my eyes.

Independent Film Festival

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