Panda Bear It

Panda Bear It (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

We meet Kamus (Damien Elliott Bynum) in a recording studio unable to perform the rap song he wishes to turn into reality. He looks defeated, dejected, alienated—an artist without passion or purpose. As he lugs his dispirited body from one location to the next, it is readily apparent that the man in front of us is in a deep state of grief. Writer, director, and producer Evan Kidd does not attempt to explore this emotion but rather provide a portrait of it.

Because Kidd’s scope is focused, he is able to accomplish plenty with seemingly so little: a humble budget, inexperienced performers, locales that can taken right off any other neighborhood. The overall look and feeling the film presents and evokes is familiarity—critical because the subject matter is universal; we all have lost someone and wondered how life might be like had this person stuck around longer: for a graduation, a wedding, a birthday party, or just waking up any other day and for some reason you yearn for this person’s company, to see their smile, to hear them laugh, to see them looking at you seeing the real you.

I found a sadness to this picture that is genuine and believable. The emotions are raw, without reverting to saccharine melodrama, that I couldn’t help but wonder if it was inspired by a very personal loss, that the work needed to be made as a sort of catharsis. Because if it weren’t, the screenplay wouldn’t get certain elements exactly right like Kamus, insistent on holding onto his state of inertia, being pushed in any and all sorts of directions by people who care for him: Grandma (Kimberly Avery), co-worker Rhonda (Brigitte “Moneybound” Kelly), a farmer (Eric Hartley) who is quick to recognize our protagonist’s suffering because he, too, had lost someone of particular importance. A few are more effective than others when it comes to relating to Kamus, but every person means well. It’s just that sometimes we forget that our own way of grieving might be different from the person next to us even though we think we know them inside out.

And then there is the panda mascot that Kamus employs as a substitute imaginary companion following his girlfriend’s sudden death. On the surface, it is so strange and amusing, especially how it is able to communicate with our protagonist using only whining sounds. (There are subtitles that guide us so we don’t have to guess the content of their exchanges.) At the same time, it makes sense as a metaphor: a panda is gentle and comforting, a mascot is a throwback to childhood which is usually happier times, and the psychic connection underscores the overwhelming isolation—sometimes self-isolation—that Kamus is going through.

A panda mascot walking around and emoting in a story about grief could have been a gimmick. But it isn’t because the filmmakers choose to treat their subject with the respect it deserves. And for that, “Panda Bear It” is worth seeing despite its shortcomings—like the audio being too soft or too loud at times, which is distracting during the more dramatic moments, and a few characters introduced for the sole purpose of getting a few weak chuckles. Since the writer-director is able to create something of value and meaning under a slew of limitations, I wonder what he can really do if every resource were at his disposal. I’m interested to know where he goes from here.

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