Caitlyn Greene strikes at the heart of an abusive relationship and one woman’s self-empowerment in her new short film “August.”
Based on Delaney Nolan’s gorgeous short story, “How I Gonna Bare My Neck Outside in the Sweat-Scared Morning,” originally published in Guernica, “August” tells the story of a woman trapped in a cramped Louisiana trailer in August for 16 years—told by her partner that storms of poisonous fungi spores make it too dangerous for her to go outside.
The film features a reading of much of Nolan’s short story by voiceover as the protagonist passes her day inside a dark, messy home, recounting and reflecting on her relationship with her lover and how it has left her both physically and emotionally trapped. “I’ve known you and known you and known you,” Nolan writes. “For always all cramped up in your bedroom like little.”
Surrounded by stacks of books and dirty plates, half-painted walls and cobwebbed fans, the woman paints her nails and lies restlessly in bed as she waits for her lover to return, until a mosquito bite causes her to realize that her lover has been lying to her and she decides to leave him for good.
Both haunting and poetic, “How I Gonna Bare My Neck Outside in the Sweat-Scared Morning” is a beautiful piece of short prose that grounds the film’s narrative voice. Edited by Roxane Gay, the short story utilizes lyrical, poetic narration to convey the often metaphorical stream-of-consciousness style of the speaker as she realizes that she has been manipulated into entrapment. And its effects are gripping, indelible and claustrophobic: “So stay inside. Windows shut,” she muses. “The air conditioner busted, going drip-drip-drip in an old glass jar all night long and the fleas bite and the off-key bells of the Protestant church going Home, home, home.”
The rhythm, musicality and lyricality of Nolan’s prose lends itself well to the especially stirring nature of the film’s visual detail. Since the story takes place within a short span of time and without much direct narrative action, Greene uses the intense space of the speaker’s mind to focus on small, artful details that give “August” a permeating claustrophobia. The film opens with a scene of the lover boarding up a window, an immediate enclosing that sets the tone for the rest of the short, which mostly features the woman performing different household tasks and moving listlessly throughout the messy house. Shots often focus on small objects, like fans or magazines, filtered through dark colorings and a pervasive sense of enclosure.
The juxtaposition of this enclosure with the speaker’s decision to leave then makes her self-liberation feel all the more forceful. And this contrast is part of what makes the film such a complex and haunting portrayal of escaping an abusive relationship—leaving a partner isn’t an easy, romantic freedom; it can be violent, terrifying and dangerous. While common narratives of women’s liberation are often singularly uplifting, “August” leaves the audience wondering whether or not the speaker will survive once she leaves.
In addition to the nuance of its relationship dynamics, “August” also features significant representation of marginalized characters. Nolan has written several stories about marginalized women in the South, and “How I Gonna Bare My Neck” is no exception. Played by black actress Kaelyn Charbonnet, the woman lives in a small, cramped home in a Louisiana swampland—the detailed and sometimes grotesque images of its crowdedness evocative of an experience that does not receive typical coverage in mainstream media.
“August” combines wide-reaching elements—poetics, unconventional narration and the representation of marginalized characters—to create a bold artistic narrative of female entrapment and self-liberation. The way it brings Nolan’s beautiful writing to the screen reflects a talented collaboration and convergence of artists, filmmakers and writers. The questions it poses have and will remain relevant to women everywhere.
“Because what am I, some kind of hooked meat, some Japanese bird made for bending?” the woman asks. And through her resistance and self-empowerment, her answer—a resounding no—is as clear as it is haunting.