So many factors contribute to creating a really great movie. It requires a good director, logical staging, fantastic acting, consistent editing and, perhaps above all, a great story. But, in many cases, films also require a decent budget to make all of these elements come together.
Small-time, homegrown films often fail because of this lattermost fact, and Piglet’s Miracle, a new film by Winston-Salem State University alum Shawn Spilman, is no exception.
Despite its flaws, director, producer and actor Spilman employed local talent to make the film — in this case, a cast and crew comprised mostly of Winston-Salem residents. That’s certainly laudable. And Piglet’s Miracle stands as a true labor of love and passion.
Piglet’s Miracle premiered its rough draft at the cozy Huber Theater in Salem College’s student center on Jan. 29. Most of the cast and crew attended, and Spilman addressed the intimate crowd before the film’s screening, recognizing the inspiration and support he received from his company.
He also acknowledged room for improvement.
“We want open criticism,” Spilman said before abandoning the stage, allowing the film to speak for itself.
Piglet’s Miracle suffers from its shoestring budget. The editing and staging confuses at times; for instance, switches in shots, even within scenes, utilized unnecessary dissolves. Visually, the film seems alternately to be either shot on very fine equipment or someone’s smartphone. The plot often meanders away from the focus of the film — an African-American girl named Piglet — in favor of seemingly ancillary characters, and the pacing stilts from frantic explication to inexplicable distraction. Perhaps most notably, the audio either stifles the actors’ dialogue to near silence or blasts at ear-piercing levels.
“I was cringing, thinking, ‘We’ve got a long way to go,’” Spilman told the audience after the film ended. “You don’t realize the mistakes until you’re watching it on the big screen.”
However, with the negatives shuffled out of the way, Piglet’s Miracle possesses many solid moments, and they all point towards inherent potential.
For one, the story is quite unique. At 3, Piglet — a nickname earned from how much she would eat — witnesses her father’s murder, is nearly killed herself by an errant bullet, and contracts HIV from an emergency blood transfusion. Much of the film focuses on her struggles in dealing with her stigmatic existence, as well as how her community supports her, especially positive male figures.
Secondly, the performances given by nearly every cast member exhibit a refreshing rawness lacking in so many of today’s films. The finest performance came from Shocky Shae, playing Piglet’s mother Tina. A complicated character, Tina adores her daughter and wishes the best for her, but also favors Piglet’s older sister and domineers over Piglet’s life and growth.
Third, while the plot wanders at times and the sound editing muffles dialogue, the approach to story and script remains intriguingly fresh.
While Spilman and the cast knew the basic story, improvisation drove the film.
“We never wrote a script down,” Spilman said after the screening.
“We just said what came to us,” Yasmine Gattison, who played Piglet, said in agreement.
The ad-libbed dialogue contributes to the film’s honesty and rawness.
Another strong point of Piglet’s Miracle is its unashamed use of Winston-Salem. As Spilman’s opening voiceover states, “You would think we’re in New Orleans or New York City, but we’re in Winston-Salem.”
In perhaps the most artful scene of the film, Spilman’s character, Steven, takes Piglet to Cook Out, and they have a conversation about Piglet’s father while riding around downtown Winston-Salem, featuring the city skyline, the Clark Campbell Transportation Center and handheld, shallow-focus shots of Piglet at three-quarter rear view from the car’s backseat, all quick and impressionistic. Truly, the scene is reminiscent of the car ride in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.
As a basic theme, Piglet’s Miracle relies on the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Likewise, the talents of a city united to make a film that, while flawed, possesses an honest, ramshackle charm.