SXSW 2018: Pet Names

Cam (Rene Cruz) and Leigh (Meredith Johnston) have a late-night tent talk in PET NAMES. Credit: Dana Shihadah

While Meredith Johnston may not be a household name, the actress delivers one heck of a performance in Pet Names.

Leigh didn’t finish college and her mom is sick.  Having to take care of her, she’s in desperate need of an escape from reality.  A chance encounter with her ex-boyfriend Cam (Rene Cruz) soon leads Leigh to make a foolish mistake by going camping with her ex.  Even if Leigh had the best of intentions, there’s no doubt that the two of them are still dealing with some issues from their past in which they might not recover.

There’s a lot that happens at the campgrounds and Leigh’s issues with Cam become very evident from the camera framing and through Leigh’s reactions at even the smallest of things.  Cam brings a long his dog, Goose, (Chato), and the pug decides to go for an adventure of his own much to Leigh and Cam’s dismay.  For many people, this camping trip would qualify as one of the worst camping trips ever.

Whether or not Meredith Johnston becomes a household name as a result of the film, it becomes clear very quickly that she gives it her all.  There’s a comedic charm that Johnston brings to her role as Leigh.  It’s no surprise given that she’s a product of the Chicago improv community.  She might not have a name as big as others just yet but she’ll get there in time.  Johnston didn’t only write the semi-autobiographical screenplay but carries the film with her leading performance.  It’s a substantial one, too, as the improv veteran is in just about every scene.  There’s so much emotion that Johnston brings to her character, Leigh–whether it’s the scenes with her mom or the bickering with Cameron.  It’s possible that Johnston could have directed the film, too, but since this is her first script, it could have become an overwhelming process.

The film also serves as the feature debut of Rene Cruz.  The Chicago-based musician adds a lot of songs to the soundtrack.  The worry that he brings when Goose goes missing feels very real.

Pet Names is the third feature film to be directed by Carol Brandt and Dana Shihadah handles cinematography duties for the first time on a feature film.  There’s some amazing scenery and Shihadah is able to capture it so well.  Brandt also doubles as the film’s editor.  With so many talented women at the helm, this film is what Female Filmmaker Friday is made for!

Pet Names also has the distinction of being filmed in an aspect ratio of 4:3. It’s an interesting choice but it helps to give off the vibe of the claustrophobic feeling that Leigh experiences.  In a world of widescreen, seeing films in this ratio brings a wave of nostalgia.

With characters that feel very real, Pet Names makes for a compelling dramedy.  This isn’t a film that will appeal to a wide audience but Johnston’s performance will win people over quickly.

DIRECTOR:  Carol Brandt
SCREENWRITER:  Meredith Johnston
CAST:  Meredith Johnston, Rene Cruz, Stacy Parish, Chelsea Norment, Jake Bradley, Lilliana Winkworth, Christina Seo

Pet Names is an official selection of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival.  The film premiered as a part of the Visions program.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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