Fantastic Fest XVII Review: HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS, A Love Story Wrapped In A Jubilee Of Zany, Cinematic Indie Wonder
October 3, 2022: Film duo Ryland Brickson Cole Tews and Mike Cheslik have already made strides in recent years with the harrowing 2018 adventure comedy Lake Michigan Monster, and judging by the looks of their latest endeavor, they’re clearly sticking to what works. For this, we turn to their dialogue-free Hundreds Of Beavers, marking Cheslik’s feature debut with Tews in a starring capacity for a rousing contemporary approach to a classic style of cinema, blending a little bit of everything you could enjoy while rooting for the underdog.
Our pointman, in this case, is a happy-go-lucky 19th century drunkard and applejack owner named Jean Kayak (Tews), who finds himself out on his ass one day when he realizes his business has been destroyed. He’s forced to survive in the bitter and harsh elements of the wintery wilderness while struggling to keep warm against tempermental wind and trying to find ways to hunt for food. His luck changes one day after managing to accrue just enough catch to exchange for a knife, thanks to a nearby merchant and his daughter, who serves as a furrier.
As the days and months progress, Kayak’s luck slowly begins to change, ultimately increasing his number of cadavers ranging from fish, raccoons, and bunnies to wolves and even those pesky, albeit well-organized and cunning beavers who’ve somehow established themselves with their own village fortress using the forest’s wood. In addition, he’s also managed to find a love interest in the furrier, and obviously, the furrier’s protective merchant father is far from approving, instead challenging Kayak to collect hundreds of beavers to win his daughter’s hand in marriage along with his blessing.
A hybrid production comprised of location and studio shots provides the basic framework of the film in all its black and white glory, with Tews front and center for our human co-stars played by Olivia Graves, Doug Mancheski, Wes Tank, and Luis Rico. The rest of the actors come costumed as the forest’s wily animals, each with a personality of their own, including and especially the beavers. The beavers are well-established and even have their own criminal justice system, as arcane as its punitive measures are. Cheslik also does some interesting stuff with the film’s animated flies who interact with Kayak as he tries to navigate his way around a trap path, or even while fishing.
It’s Tews, though, who wins the day as the film’s centerpiece hero, plying his trade with all the physical feats necessary to service the audience from shot to shot. Cited already in reviews now running online are influences like Charlie Chaplin and Looney Tunes, and they’re not wrong, especially with Tews’ performance echoing the likes of memorable characters such as Wile E. Coyote, Mr. Bean and Hawley Pratt’s Pink Panther (another example of this can also be seen in Eric Jacobus’s Rope-A-Dope short films). Additionally, from the performances to the gags and the pacing, you certainly sense the air of golden age animation as the founding basis for this kind of production, and as rare as this kind of cinema is to see in today’s market, none of it feels like an overstep.
Even the film’s action and stunt sequences speak similar volumes, one which finds Kayak and a fellow traveler battling wolves near their campfire, and another toward the end as our protagonist fights his way out of the intricate mechanisms, conveyor beltways and deep halls of the beaver citadel. It’s particularly important to note the fight scenes were choreographed by Jon Truei, who has exhibited nothing short of brilliance in his own directorial short projects like Secondary Education, and most recently in The 44th Chamber Of Shaolin.
There’s also some extra context that one could perceive in analyzing Hundreds Of Beavers. Quotes by St. Augustine, John Bunyan and Benjamin Franklin outline the conceptual basis of Kayak’s perilous journey of self-discovery. Factoring in the slang definition of the word ‘beaver’ and seeing beyond the sort of ‘Man Versus Nature’ aspect, you might get how this film presents something of a thesis on companionship using the romantic connection between Kayak and the Furrier – one with a requisite understanding of human sexual desire, illustrated through vaudeville with a small touch of pantomine to boot.
It takes a level of enthusiasm and imagination that only artists like Truei, Tews and Cheslik can tap into, coupled with the kind of creative depth they provide through a bygone lens and an affirmative appreciation for the silent film era and practical filmmaking, and with a team that equally shares their affinity in kind. With Hundreds Of Beavers, Cheslik and Tews continue their stride, with the former firmly etching himself a place among today’s burgeoning up-and-comers in cinema and festival fanfare.
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Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.