Newly released on Vimeo, Terminally Happy is an unsettling science-fiction short from writer-director Adina Istrate. The premise seems mundane at first: Louis (Alastair Mackenzie) is reluctant to see his son Oscar (William Stagg) leave for school one morning, while Oscar’s mother Evie (Emma Campbell-Jones) insists that he goes. Istrate hints that things aren’t right throughout. Something is happening outside that we never see, and Louis’ forlorn state doesn’t match up with the prosaic situation. Noises linger on the soundtrack uncomfortably: electric drones and hums; an unknown substance fizzing in Louis’ glass.

As with the best episodes of Black Mirror – to which comparisons have been plentiful and justified – Terminally Happy has the viewer on edge long before the sci-fi twist. Istrate does a masterful job of building up an uncanny atmosphere from relatively few materials. In fact, the small cast and minimalist setting work to the director’s advantage in creating a weirdly lifeless family scenario. Evie’s and Oscar’s dialogue is blunt and affectless, jarring with the effect it has on Louis. Their home is a little too clean and tidy, in the claustrophobic manner of much near-future speculative fiction (e.g. Gattaca or Black Mirror’s “Entire History of You”). Eui Jeong Hong’s cinematography brings everything together in a subdued palette of icy blue-grey.

What exposition there is feels naturalistic, and viewers are left with some sizeable mysteries to ponder. Watching Terminally Happy a second time is very rewarding, with Mackenzie’s performance in particular illuminated by the new context. Those eager to see more of Istrate’s deft hand at sci-fi should look forward to her upcoming debut feature Eve, a psychological thriller about the first manned mission to Mars.

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CAST: Alastair Mackenzie, Emma Campbell-Jones, William Stagg


SYNOPSIS: Louis can’t bear to let his son leave for school. Something is wrong.