Young love is like dying: a total, blissful, elegiac sense of the world. Youth itself is a finite state; unlike adulthood, which drones on and on. Youth – like pop music – is emphatically present. It crackles: “Now”. And that boldness of feeling floods young love. To be in love at sixteen is to be awash with feeling: filling up and up and up. Again, it makes for that death connection: the tsunami-life, where living surges so fast that death seems like the only possible corollary. Shakespeare didn’t kill off Romeo and Juliet because he set out to write a tragedy; he killed them because young love can only die…or else it cools… or else you grow up. Josh Beattie’s short, To Claire; From Sonny, is a small masterpiece on the subject.
“Dear Claire,” he writes. And then we see her. She’s posing at the back of a ferry, in Brisbane, Australia. The city is behind her. She’s young and beautiful. Sonny’s narration takes the form of a letter to Claire, telling her of his life since their break-up. He writes in a reverie. Claire was his first love. Like all first loves, she gave him the sense that all life’s questions had been answered. But they broke-up, or else… something happened. So now Sonny rides the train, and thinks of his new girlfriend (who, to his bemusement, “voluntarily eats celery”), and Claire is dearer to him than ever, now that she’s gone. He writes to evoke her. He wants her memory to crash over him. The hurt she brings is a powerful love.
Unabashed feeling is valid here, because, to render young love accurately, you can’t dodge feeling with cynicism. In some respects, To Claire; From Sonny is reminiscent of the kind of heartfelt movies Alejandro González Iñárritu makes, where the shimmering beauty of life is constant, and death is like a complimentary space. There’s always death in an Iñárritu movie, because, without it, life wouldn’t glisten. Iñárritu makes elegies, and To Claire; From Sonny shares that wistful sentiment. Director Josh Beattie is remarkably deft at avoiding maudlin overtones, or the threat of despondency settling over the short. Again, like Iñárritu, he’s able to make you feel transported rather than entombed. Half the pleasure of watching the movie comes from the life it catches: from Claire’s eyelashes brushing Sonny’s chest, to the way the world flows past a train window, silently unmooring passengers’ thoughts.
The young actor who plays Sonny looks a little like Nicholas Hoult, the young actor who played the embodiment of youth in Tom Ford’s A Single Man. The actress who plays Claire looks a little like Gossip Girl’s Michelle Trachtenberg. Neither is required to speak in To Claire; From Sonny. But they do look like they could be a real couple; you believe in their romance. This isn’t meant to be an actor’s showcase, after all; it’s a director’s calling card. What stands out most, watching the short, isn’t the brilliant quality of the acting; it’s the prodigious skill with which the film is made. A graveyard sequence is shot in panoramic miniature, as if it were a diorama, illustrating grief. Time-lapse photography depicts Brisbane as aloof.
At seventeen, director Josh Beattie displays the kind of instinct a twenty-year professional should envy. Like all natural film-makers, he knows intuitively when to cut and how long a scene should play. He frames his actors wonderfully: one shot in particular, of Claire walking down a suburban road, has her centre-frame – insistently pacing toward us – moving closer and closer to the camera, until she’s so close… we lose sight. When Sonny thinks back on his favourite moments with Claire, intimacy is conveyed through close-ups of her feet, eyes, hands. The film isn’t a moment too long or too short. It takes up only the space of a letter, saying the one thing every letter says: Now, I’m thinking of you.
Young love isn’t about marriage, or having children. It’s a two-man show, where every night you both split your heart open, and every morning you both treasure the pain. Nothing competes with love when you’re sixteen. Homework doesn’t hold a candle to the heart-stricken wait for his-or-her next call. When you grow-up, love is clouded by other love affairs: the heart gets paunchy, balconies are rarely scaled. Jobs come to pummel love. Routines set in. Years chip at certainties. For a spark to be a spark, it can only last a short while. To Claire; From Sonny is about the tumult of love, the part that’s most exciting, and the shortest lived. We all cherish our first love. We all mourn the loss of our heart-quaking youth.