From its opening moments, which show a bird flying to and from a perilously perched nest, Vinothraj P.S.’s debut feature Pebbles tensely balances between serenity and aggression. The winner of the Tiger Award at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival, it is a deliberately spare affair, running just 76 minutes — including a full ten minutes of credits — and set amid the barren, remote villages in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It finds its narrative engine in Ganapathy (Karuththadaiyaan), a vulgar, alcoholic father who barges into his son Velu’s (Chellapandi) school, demands to know whether he loves him or his mother more, and all but drags him along to deliver an ultimatum regarding his marriage.
From this setup, Vinothraj crafts a mesmerizing, fragmented series of voyages, which moves from bus rides and contentious conversations with various figures to extended shots of father and son walking through the savanna in the hot summer. Moving rapidly between inexorable handheld tracking shots and wide master shots from a variety of angles (including a few drone shots that bring out the cracked textures of the landscapes), the broad formal outlines are certainly patterned to some degree on slow cinema directors.
However, there is an aggression and unpredictability to the style that cast such comparisons in a different light, and which make Pebbles a continually engaging work. Chief among these is the narrative structure, which, while adhering to the general arc previously described, always seeks to complicate the father-and-son dynamic by introducing and briefly following various characters, even before Ganapathy and Velu come across them in their voyage. The zenith of this careful choreography of characters comes during a ten-minute long take, which follows Velu as he walks through his mother’s village to deliver his father’s message, switching primary camera subject amongst various other family and village members before his father starts a brawl with his brother-in-law, finally ending back outside of the village once more.
And of course, given his centrality in the narrative, Karuththadaiyaan more than fulfills his role as the anchor of Pebbles’ visual progression, moving forward with a confident, cocksure swagger that constantly thrusts his right shoulder back and forth. Vinothraj’s direction responds in kind, often utilizing slow-motion, unexpected camera moves — including a revolving tracking shot as Velu is beaten that catches far more of the ground than of the “action” — and even oddly restive interludes to jumpstart the viewer’s attention. Through it all, especially with a curious yet fitting ending, Pebbles remains a slippery but never punishing work, always enlivening its hypnotic depiction of travel and motion with unexpected, welcome elements.
Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2021 — Dispatch 2.