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MKE Film 'Cream City Cinema' Review: The Other One

Is it better to know something about a film before the screening or is it best to walk into the theater with a blank slate?  On Wednesday Oct. 1 I saw Josef Steiff’s indie film “The Other One.” I walked blindly into this, only knowing it was part of Milwaukee Film Festival’s “Cream City Cinema” showcase, featuring new work from Milwaukee-based film makers.

The film begins in a high-school classroom, where 34-year-old Amber (Grace McPhillips) is leading a literature lesson. As a student reads aloud to the class, a man in the hallway catches Amber’s eye.  He tells the student to continue reading, steps into the hall and thus begins a very complicated story. We are then launched to a very different scene with Amber’s arrival to a country farmhouse. She unloads her suitcases from her car, dismisses a visiting nurse, and moves to her sick mother’s bedside. 

This is where my confusion began. Was Amber taking care of her mother while on summer vacation? Nope.

It becomes clear that taking care of sick mom in the middle of nowhere is a miserable experience for Amber. Her mom is constantly groaning “Helllllllllllp meeeeeeee.  Helllllllllllp meeeeeeeee” from her bed, there’s a constant rumbling in the attic and startling moments where her mom freaks out screaming at her as if she were a child.

While trying to put together what was going on, I thought perhaps Amber was an abused child, conflicted with taking care of her sick mother who never showed her any love … nope, I was wrong again. Fast forward, the film takes more confusing turns.  There’s a man wearing a black hood that disappears and reappears in the woods, a scuttle hole to the attic is left ajar (though Amber closed is while investigating the noises above), there are two men in the house that are actually spirits, Amber’s best friend’s mom seem to hate Amber, the finding of a giant pile of unopened letters sent from a prison, vintage toys in a secret staircase behind a basement shelf, the opening of a manila envelope containing “evidence” and Amber’s compulsion in having doors to the home locked. 

This was all very fascinating, but I became impatient with my inability to figure out the story line.

About 75 percent of the way into the film, I thought I had this much figured out: Amber quit her job as a teacher to care for her dementia-suffering mom. She learns she had a brother who spent his life locked in a secret staircase. Her mother isn’t really suffering from dementia, but the haunting of her deceased brother.  Well …guess what … nope, I was wrong. 

If it hadn’t been for the Q&A after the film, I would still be confused. Turns out the film is about a school shooting that takes place outside of Amber’s classroom. Suffering from PTSD, Amber moves home and in the process takes on the responsibility of caring for her sick mom.  One of the ghostly men in the house is Amber’s brother who was drowned in the river by their father (hence the prison letters), and the other ghost is Amber’s dead husband (who was killed in the school shooting three years earlier). The hooded man in the woods is a symbol of death (I think). Is mom really dealing with dementia or is she being haunted by her diseased son? I have no clue.

I was frustrated for the 24 hours following this film, but now that I’ve had a little time to digest my confusion, I recommend seeing it. Despite my difficulties in piecing together the storyline, the theme of coping with death and loss has its shining moments. This film had me talking into the night with my peers about imagery and symbolism; and if a film (or any art form) can get its audience talking about greater meanings in life, then I believe it’s a job well done.

I also want to take a moment to give major credit to Grace McPhillips, the actor playing Amber. While leaving the theater, I had a quick conversation with her. The character Amber had clearly seen better days, and she was more than a little “rough around the edges.” She looked exhausted, depressed and overall helpless, and I felt genuine sympathy for her. The kicker is how believable she was. I absolutely love it when I forget that a character is an actor playing a role, and McPhillips fooled me 100 percent. Imagine my surprise when I found myself suddenly face-to-face with “Amber,” who is actually an energetic, smiling, bright and beautiful human with a sparkling personality. There’s something to be said about an actor that’s willing to check his / her glamour at the door to play a role in a less-than-lovely light.  This was one of those rare and refreshing moments

Director of Digital Content | Radio Milwaukee