This month, I’m spotlighting two short films directed by an actor you may know from "Silicon Valley," “Veep,” “The Office” and “Avenue 5.” Zach Woods has appeared in some of the best half-hour comedy shows of the past two decades, often stealing scenes with his charmingly awkward disposition and often playing the most eager-to-please guy in the room. At the same time, Woods has been quietly building a resume of short films that demonstrate he has learned quite a bit from the directors he’s worked with. Both films profiled below are filled with comedic tension that does not depend on laughs, so much as an understanding of the unenviable situations in which the characters find themselves.
The first one, “David,” stars Will Ferrell and William Jackson Harper (from “The Good Place”). Ferrell plays a therapist and Harper plays the patient, who has called Ferrell for an emergency session. As Ferrell tries to talk Harper down from his anxiety, they are paid an unexpected visit from Ferrell’s son (Fred Hechinger, the wonderful young actor from “The White Lotus”). He is dressed in his high school wrestling outfit and demands his father drop what he’s doing to come watch him win the big match he’s been talking about for weeks. Poor Harper is caught in the middle and makes every effort to leave.
With Ferrell in the role as the therapist, we’re conditioned to expect something goofy to take place, but Ferrell is so good here at keeping the viewer off-balance, even as the tension behind this uncomfortable situation is heightened. Hechinger, likewise, never lets Ferrell off the hook and makes his character’s desperation for acceptance believable, giving the impression that this outburst is nothing new for them.
The other film, “Bud,” seems inspired by experiences many in show business may be having at the moment. Woods has worked with his fair share of actors who have been “cancelled,” and “Bud” takes a sympathetic viewpoint without being clear about the nature of the main character’s cancellation or occupation. Michael Peña plays a man taking his daughter, Maddie (the very talented Everly Carganilla from Netflix’s “The Chair”), out for her birthday at a restaurant where a waiter may or may not sing her a special birthday song. As they wait for their food, other patrons stare at them, take pictures and confront Peña head-on about how horrible he is/was.
As we watch “Bud” and grow aware of Peña’s fallen status, we become more and more curious about what he did to lose public favor. Woods makes a smart decision to keep us in the dark about it. Not to say it doesn’t matter, but more to the point, people should try to use a little more tact if that someone is trying to enjoy a dinner with their seven-year-old daughter. Somehow in society, people have appointed themselves judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to a celebrity’s misgivings and private life. We never learn if his behavior (or that of his father, if you listen closely to one of the patrons shouting at him) was justified, but poor Maddie now has to bear some of the brunt of it in public. Woods doesn’t preach about any of this, thankfully. This is more of a story about a little girl who may have to grow up a little faster than she expected.
There is not a false note in either film, even when “David” veers into slight physical comedy. Watch how, in that short, the devastating moment between Ferrell and Harper is interrupted momentarily by a seemingly strange occurrence. Ferrell perfectly balances the comedic tension by trying against hope to recover the moment they were just in, knowing full well he has lost his crucial train of thought. Ferrell could have played all of this for laughs, but that would have undermined Harper and Hechinger’s work here, which is among their best.
The always reliable Peña, in “Bud,” beautifully plays his role as someone with apparently no misgivings or scandal surrounding him, but simply as a loving father whose relationship with his daughter is believable from the outset. Of course, a large part of that is also credited to Carganilla, a star in the making. She comes off as someone with the wisdom of an old soul and not a precocious, over-coached child actor. The film could have just been her and Peña having a nice night out without incident and I think I’d still be writing about how good it is.
Perhaps it's no surprise, given the work Woods has done as an actor and the talent he’s been surrounded with throughout his career, that he's a natural director of humanist comedy and drama, with an acute sense of where the tensions lie and how much necessary information to give the audience. “David” and “Bud” remind me of the best works by Nicole Holofcener, Mike White, and Tom McCarthy. Woods and co-writer Brandon Gardner give these shorts an especially satisfying sense of closure, and purpose.
Here’s hoping that Woods continues down this path, and eventually into features (bringing Gardner with him). As a director, Woods is not out to show off his technique (although he is clearly skilled in shooting and editing), but to invite the viewer to share time with these wonderfully complex characters whose stories are worth our time and investment.