SMALL TALK is a new horror short about Al (Manini Gupta), a young phone sex operator who finds her clients have begun mysteriously dying after revealing dark secrets to her. The short was directed by Nicole Witte Solomon, and features a diverse female cast, which includes a cameo from underground rapper Jean Grae.
Our introduction to Al and her career initially highlights the mundane boredom she faces as she puts on different accents, pretends to be people she is not, all while washing dishes, painting and reading books. But soon the calls take a dark turn as Al fields a call from Fern, a hostile client who berates her and threatens to rape her. Al is pinned in place by the rules imposed on her by her employer (she cannot hang up on a client) and the call leaves her shaken. Afterwards, she meets her friend Tania (Ruthellen Cheney) for a drink, but Al is distracted and retreats to the bathroom while Tania watches a news report about the violent death of Fern, Al’s earlier client. When Al comes back, she complains of a terrible headache and leaves.
The next day, still suffering from a migraine, Al fields another dark call, this time from a man who begins admitting his attraction to young girls. Al is increasingly made uncomfortable by the man, who gives her his home address thinking she will send him her underwear. Their call is interrupted by a young girl, presumably the man’s daughter, whom he proceeds to yell at before abruptly hanging up. Al, worried for the girl’s safety and equipped with his home address, recruits Tania to drive her to the man’s house. Al is unsure of what she will do, although she is equipped with pepper spray, but as she approaches the house, an explosion of blood coats the back window. Terrified, the women retreat back to Al’s apartment. Here, we’re finally given insight into the mysterious deaths when Tania’s abusive ex-boyfriend and a coked-up client barge into Al’s apartment for the film’s final bloody climax. Be sure to stick around for the post-credits scene as well.
According to Nicole Witte Solomon, SMALL TALK was born out of her own experiences as professional phone sex actress. Callers were often offensive or abusive to Solomon, but she was unable to hang up on them because of company policy. But instead of allowing herself to be dehumanized, Solomon would flip the tables on nasty callers. When it came time to unpack this experience, horror was the most obvious genre. According to Solomon, “The deaths in the film are a fantasy metaphor for the protective, but violent urges that almost inevitably develop when one feels trapped in a situation where they cannot effectively enforce healthy boundaries. The context is phone sex, but similar dynamics persist throughout the broader service industry, and beyond.”
For me, SMALL TALK definitely spoke to the harassment that women experience in many avenues of life, particularly in the beginning sequence when Al, working as a temp, is harassed by a client. The idea that women cannot have sexual agency without being sluts (Al is consistently berated as a slut, simply for providing a service that also helps pay her bills), that women exist solely for the sexual pleasure of men and that any misstep from this narrative justifies violence and abuse is one that pervades society at multiple levels. It doesn’t take much effort to call up the vitriol spewed online at any woman who dares speak or act “out of turn,” let alone news articles on women killed or injured for spurning the unwanted advances of men.
On the surface, SMALL TALK might feel like a non-traditional rape-revenge narrative, as there is a sense of justice as each disgusting caller turns up dead. And it is important to note that the genre exists not just so we can watch bad men get chopped down, but because of the lack of traditional justice for victims of rape. And the film certainly makes a commentary on this in the form of Tania’s abusive and obsessive ex-boyfriend.
But beyond this, SMALL TALK masterfully showcase the suffocating sense of entrapment women feel when they’re being harassed. We don’t have to watch an uncomfortable rape scene, instead we watch Al cringe, get high or distract herself with pictures of kittens to emotionally cope with the uncomfortable sexual charades she must take part in. In the opening scene, as Al is trapped behind a desk, unable to escape the leering of a handsy client who won’t go away, we too feel trapped. Luckily, we get to breathe a sigh of relief as we know, in this context, it won’t end well for this man or anyone else who crosses the line. But where is our relief in real life?
For more information about SMALL TALK, including information on how to purchase, please visit: http://www.smalltalkmovie.com
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