Death (or grief) can do strange things to a person. It can make you lash out; it can make you hyper organised; it can make even the most basic of tasks feel draining. It doesn’t usually, however, make you conjure up a talking sloth with whom you can share your problems and secrets. But that is the case in Bradley Hasse’s Songs for a Sloth. Marking Hasse’s feature length debut, this is a film that takes an interesting approach to sibling dynamics, following your dreams and loss.
Three siblings find themselves back in their familial home following the death of their dad. It is clear that – in so many ways – their father has had a real impact on who they are as adults, right down to the careers they have chosen. Maxwell (Richard Hollman), uptight to the point of neurotic, experiences periods of disassociation following his dad’s death. Barney (Brian McCarthy) seems goofy and quirky, untroubled by the entire situation. Jenna (Ava Eisenson) remains glued to her phone, seemingly unable to live without the likes and comments it takes to be a social influencer.
Further to the loss of their father, the siblings face potential financial ruin. Having lost out on investments and remortgaged his house, the father actually leaves his children in debt. In particular, there is a $10,000 bounty weighing on the survival of a North American sloth reserve that runs adjacent to their house. Can the siblings come up with the money to ensure these rare beasts can remain in their natural habitat? Between the promise of a talking sloth and the idea of a ‘fundraiser with a deadline’, this movie could have gone down the offbeat, slapstick route (as you may well expect). And whilst there is an element of that – notably stemming from the character of Barney – it actually offers up a narrative that goes a little deeper.
Through Maxwell’s desire to save the sloths – in order to avoid disappointing his dead dad – we see the struggle that he has faced in his life up until this point. He’s chosen to take a deadline driven, creativity lacking “proper job” in order to make his dad happy. He’s given up his true passion in life, music, in order to be taken seriously. That’s a narrative that may well ring true for a lot of viewers. As the oldest child, he feels the need to be responsible and organised, whilst Barney and Jenna appear to have been free to pursue whatever whim they happen to be on at any one time. Writer-director Bradley Hasse has noted the semi-autobiographical elements of this film, having given up on his own film-making dreams, only to return to them later in life.
Songs for A Sloth is very much a relationship-driven movie. It’s one of those films where not a terribly large amount happens, but it’s the people onscreen who draw you in. The characters of Barney and Jenna definitely offer up a bit of comic relief to Maxwell’s struggling artist. Richard Hollman offers up a really beautiful portrayal of loss – not only of his father but of his potential music career. Although the sloth songs are funny, it’s the contentment that playing offers him that is interesting to watch – his entire body language and facial expressions change.
But, in amongst all of this soul searching is the question of the sloth reserve. Hollman also writes and performs all of Maxwell’s sloth related songs that appear in the movie – “I live my life in a single tree / I do it to save energy” – with all of the passion and craft you’d expect of a serious musician. The attempts at creating viral video content that he undertakes with his siblings are really funny and showcase the natural chemistry that the three leads have. In particular, Barney’s zombie apocalypse video – “kill zombies, not sloths” – is really funny.
And – since you were no doubt waiting to hear where the sloth puppet comes into it – 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer provides the voice of the talking sloth with whom Maxwell consults in his sleep. He’s chatty and friendly but with stern warnings about pursuing your dreams (and preventing unnecessary sloth death). One criticism of this film could be that there simply isn’t enough sloth appearances, since he only converses with Maxwell a handful of times. McBrayer voices the puppet very well, without overplaying it or becoming ridiculous. If anything, he seems like a natural part of Maxwell’s grief.
Towards the end of the film, the sloth gently encourages Maxwell – “it’s about starting something.” – with a life lesson that may well resonate with a lot of viewers. And indeed, with Bradley Hasse, who used Kickstarter to pursue his dreams and make this movie. The final song, Things I’d Like to Know, is a poignant way to wrap up the movie – not only because it captures the events of the previous 90 minutes, but because it’s clear that Maxwell is ready to be who he truly is.
Songs For a Sloth Opens June 15, 2021 via Gravitas Ventures