Brevity is by no means the only virtue of writer-director Ted Fendt’s 60-minute gem Short Stay, a rich, deceptively modest dissection of the perils of inertia—for as its ungainly protagonist discovers, anything that falls into your lap can just as easily fall out of it again. This stripped-down story of a less-than-dynamic man lets its gentle humor tip over into the excruciating again and again, functioning like a finely tuned moral tale whose tenderness for its characters doesn’t mean it won’t expose their shortcomings.
However gauche and reticent he may be, Mike (Mike Maccherone) should conceivably have his whole life ahead of him, given that he’s in his mid 20s and comes from a comfortable middle-class background. And yet, he still lives with his mother in suburban New Jersey, while a job at the local pizza parlor is the closest thing he has to a career. On one of his winter delivery rounds, he bumps into high school friend Mark (Mark Simmons), who invites him to a party and later says Mike can take his Philadelphia apartment and walking-tour job while he spends a few months in Poland. Soon it’s summer and Mike is indeed in the big city, but somehow he’s the same slightly maladroit individual, even if now the main reason for his awkwardness is the Philly anecdotes he’s forced to tell to largely unimpressed tourists.
The feeling that Mike is unmoored from the standard trajectories of life and career is further amplified by how Fendt carefully undercuts the central narrative by making the moments in between its nominal events as prominent as the events themselves and ensuring that consequence doesn’t necessarily follow cause. Mike spends half the film wandering streets that stretch between New Jersey and Philadelphia, a constant reminder that this is someone perpetually trying and failing to actually get somewhere, the only notable change being whether the sidewalks are covered in snow or leaf-dappled sunshine. When moments of potential narrative significance rear their head, any meaning they could have tends to dissipate just as suddenly; a lost dog, an angry exchange after a hockey game, and a wallet found on the street all suggest potential repercussions that never actually materialize.
By downplaying linear progression and cause and effect, Fendt is free to structure Mike’s stasis according to an almost rhythmically organized series of doublings and repetitions, with the trivial, yet telling, differences between each related episode also functioning as a delivery system for droll humor. At the first party at Mark’s house, Mike has a semi-awkward exchange with Mark and Mark’s girlfriend, Marta (Marta Sicinska); at the second party at Marta’s, he speaks to no one. And if Mark’s first telling of the ridiculously detailed hockey anecdote that forms part of the walking tour is already amusing, the sheer ineptness of Mike’s subsequent retelling of the tired yarn to a bewildered tourist replicates and heightens the effect of the original gag while adding an additional layer of embarrassment. And the grimly funny sight of Mike lying down on a dirty kitchen floor echoes all the louder due to the fact that this is already the umpteenth time he’s put his head on a pillow, and never in such an undignified place as this.
Humor aside, the lack of both period signifiers and obvious escape routes for its characters also makes Short Stay a timeless, sobering portrait of how hard it can be to access the realm of adulthood and the confidence and security it promises. All the seemingly cosmopolitan references to Polish drinking holes, German tattoo designs, or evangelicals in the Congo only drive home how far away the rest of the world actually is for these characters, the hardest truth being that it’s their own neurotic limitations which are the ultimate source of that distance. If this story does indeed have a moral, it’s best articulated by a line from The Last Days of Disco that Whit Stillman, another expert chronicler of social disaffection, put into one of his own rudderless character’s mouths: “We can change our context, but we can’t change ourselves”.