The official synopsis for Kersti Jan Werdal’s Lake Forest Park reads that “a group of teenagers have to come to terms with the violent death of a classmate.” Viewers might be forgiven for missing this pertinent bit of information, which is relayed via a news radio report emanating from a car stereo at the beginning of the film and then never explicitly mentioned again. Indeed, there is virtually no narrative or proper dialogue in the entire 60-minute film, only a sparse score, a naturalistic soundtrack, and occasional incidental speaking that is drowned out by music or muffled by distance. Instead, Werdal has constructed a film that is entirely structured around the idea of absence — even if one isn’t aware of the inciting incident, there’s a palpable sense of loss that permeates the proceedings.
An early sequence of shots show the marked influence of James Benning (also credited as a “creative consultant”) without being entirely beholden to the master’s methods; static master shots are edited together like slowly turning pages in a photo album, each held a beat or two too long, like an eerie series of remembrances. Empty parking lots, dilapidated storefronts, and a rundown movie theater mark this environment as an accumulation of liminal spaces. Eventually the film’s title appears along with a wide shot of figures in the distance playing a game of Marco Polo. What follows is a series of discrete events that occasionally suggest a multitude of potential stories without ever fully committing to one. Teenagers lounge on a couch, apply makeup in the school bathroom, and walk around campus. A ferry trip from this suburban enclave to nearby Seattle becomes a major event, Werdal’s camera taking in the enormity of the water and the loud mechanical apparatus that allows the ship to dock at port. A trip to a club to see a hardcore punk band exhibits a distinct Bressonian vibe, with one long scene showing hands in closeup exchanging money for a hand-stamp while guitars wail away in the background. It’s simultaneously very straightforward while still quietly profound; to borrow from Erika Balsom, writing on Benning’s Ten Skies, “there are films that appear simple but harbour great complexity,” that are “literal and obvious in the best way, an elemental experience.” Werdal isn’t interested in a cataloging of what happens after a traumatic event, but instead in creating a space to lose oneself in, to wander around and absorb the actual absence of something. The constant pitter-patter of rain is the only constant, as life slowly moves on. We see two young men kiss, then a fleeting moment of connection as a young couple grasp hands and walk toward the schoolyard.
Working with cinematographer Gillian Garcia, Lake Forest Park was photographed on 16mm film, giving it the patina of an aged object (the lovely grain patterns and warm tone here are a far cry from the flat, hard edges and cool colors of much current digital photography). Quite simply, it’s a beautiful object to look at. But one wishes Werdal didn’t feel compelled to show her group of teens attending a screening of Benning’s Landscape Suicide; it feels academic, too far removed from the casual naturalism of the rest of the film. Still, for those familiar with Benning’s experimental treatise on the history of American violence, it supplies a kind of conceptual underpinning to Werdal’s film that is otherwise (smartly) left unspoken. The final result is a very fine film from an exciting young filmmaker.
Published as part of Prismatic Ground 2022 — Dispatch 2.