by Christie Robb
Writer/director Naiv Conty certainly does not look back on childhood with a rose colored tint. Her film Small Time follows elementary school student Emma as she pinballs around from unfit home to unfit home.
It’s an emotionally honest portrait of neglect that keeps us uncomfortably aware of the tightrope Emma is unaware that she is walking. She’s constantly suspended above disaster—one overlooked gas stove, one loaded handgun, one move from a leering perv away from lasting trauma.
But Emma’s still sustaining damage all the time, just in tinier, more banal, ways. Hard-core drug and alcohol abuse by the adults around her is a normal part of her life. She’s loaded up with religious baggage. She’s expected to parent the grown-ups in her life. In the whole movie, no one is there to give her a cuddle or reassurance that looks like it is going to truly have a positive effect. But most of the adults do seem to be doing their best. It’s just that their best isn’t that great.
You know you are in for a heavy film when, only 13 minutes in, your pint-sized heroine has attended her primary caregiver’s funeral and tried repeatedly to “wake up” her mom from an OD.
Still, Emma is a scrappy, upbeat, smart little thing, her interior light dimmed surprisingly little by the shit she has to deal with. Audrey Grace Marshall plays her very straightforwardly. There’s nothing saccharine about her, nothing overwrought. She takes things as they come.
The movie plays a little bit with the timeline and shows events somewhat out of order. This didn’t become clear to me until relatively far into the film. It was filmed over a three-and-a-half-year period to give Marshall time to grow and mature between the three major periods depicted.
These chronological jumps are not clearly signaled by musical or obvious visual cues so it can be a bit disorienting. But the lack of exposition does center us in Emma’s experience as she flashes back to previous experiences and tries to make the best of the terrible hand she’s been dealt.
Small Time isn’t an easy film to watch, but it’s a good one.