When we met with writer-director Sam Max in 2020 to discuss their haunting play Coop, they described the inspiration for the work as coming from “a profound sense of isolation, particularly as a queer person”. Their impressive debut short film, the delicate and gripping two-hander Chaperone, which world premieres at Sundance 2022 feels like it comes from that same place.
As the film opens we meet an anxious, casually dressed young man (Russell Kahn, also a producer) as he gets into the immaculately clean car of a calm, measured older man (Zachary Quinto, also an executive producer) clad all in black, down to his boots, leather gloves, and Aviators. Clearly some kind of transaction is taking place between them, and one immediately gets the sense that this is something more sinister, clandestine, and intriguing than an Uber Black ride.
Chaperone isn’t a short that relies on a twist in the tale to make an impact—though its conclusion might be a surprise to some, so we won’t spoil it here—instead Max skillfully sustains a creepy, mysterious tone and an unnerving tension throughout. Austere and somewhat sombre, there are glimmers of light as an intimacy builds between the men, a guarded one on the older man’s side, with Quinto’s exacting character setting all the rules.
Although the dialogue is more naturalistic, the enigmatic setup and the unsettling air of menace that Quinto’s character exudes at times put me in mind Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Despite his chosen field of work though, in Quinto’s hands there’s a kindness and gentleness to his professionalism, and an enticing, seductive energy about him. There’s also an uneasy playfulness and an erotic charge between them, with an unconventional sex scene that occurs off-screen after they arrive at their destination; a remote country house where all the soft furnishings are covered with protective plastic sheets, and where the only thing that’s plentiful is a draw filled with drugs designated for the younger man.
With no score, sound effects are used with a restraint typical of Max’s elegantly spare approach to plot, setting, and blocking, that’s echoed in See You Then cinematographer Jordan T. Parrott’s striking images and stunning tonal work. There’s one breathtaking, simple but poignant long take, with an extreme close up on the younger’s man’s face as a single tear falls from his eye as he lays in the older man’s gloved hands. It’s beautifully cinematic storytelling.
With their tantalizing Daddy/Son dynamic, Kahn and Quinto captivate as they create rich inner lives for their characters that drew me in and kept me off-balance. Max has made a deliciously dark, provocative, and intoxicating queer chiller that lingers long after the end credits roll.
By James Kleinmann
Chaperone is one of our LGBTQ+ Sundance 2022 highlights and world premieres on Thursday January 20th at 9am MT and will be available to watch throughout the festival at Festival.Sundance.org. For more details and tickets head here.