Within the first minute of The Pavement Psychologist, Idris Elba's official short film writing/directing debut, he clears a couple of common obstacles for a first-timer. Speaking in terms of one making the transition from being in front of to behind the camera (though he doesn't resist the urge to make a fleeting, silent, almost obscured appearance in one shot), he announces a bit more ambition from a visual standpoint than most actors-turned-directors, not merely in the rather striking opening shots that peer overhead, then fluidly swoop into and around accountant Jenny's (Anna Friel) apartment, but also the production design (by Nick Palmer) itself, from the spartan, immaculate white of her bed and bedroom to, most notably, a ridiculously organized walk-in closet devoted entirely to her shoes. With carefully picture-labeled shoeboxes rather obsessively filed away in seemingly endless rows and stacks that line the walls around a literal central display case devoted to (as the film opens) a prized pair of gilttery red heels, the space resembles an odd cross between a mausoleum and a museum for footwear--an unabashed and knowingly cheeky expression of the writer/director's long-self-professed foot fetish, one of the ways Elba clears the second hurdle, which is to imprint his own distinctive style and identifiable voice into the piece. But beyond mere obsession indulgence, of which Jenny's Shrine o' Shoes is truly just the tip of the proverbial iceberg (with all the recurring close-ups of Friel's attractive metatarsals in footwear running the casual-to-glam gamut in the brisk 25-minute run time, Tarantino has seriously been dethroned in short, swift order); Elba does find ways to also weave it in organically, most obviously in how it comes to link Jenny with the "pavement psychologist" of the title, Chris (Nonso Anozie), a homeless philosopher of sorts who literally watches the feet of female passers-by and deduces their weight on sight for spare change. If the initial connection sounds somewhat contrived, the individual circumstances of each character--she, on her birthday, dealing with personal drama and frustrations with a partner (Steven Mackintosh) in the professional workplace; he, having suffered tremendous personal loss, finding ways to be useful and give back--bolstered by the natural, unforced rapport between Friel and Anozie make such an unlikely friendship rather involving and affecting to witness develop.
If only there were more time for it to breathe and watch it develop, for perhaps owing to being part of a short form drama anthology series, there is also more perfunctory and predictable plot business involving Jenny's company, namely some shady goings-on with funds as it relates to a local homeless shelter. While these concerns do eventually dovetail with the more character-driven ones, they pale in interest to and do detract, both in attention and precious screen time, from the absorbing Jenny-Chris/Friel-Anozie duet. Making those story elements look even more routine are the various quirky, freewheeling touches Elba throws in along the way that lend an added air of anything-goes unpredictability, whether they be dalliances into the dream-surreal that somewhat recall the edgy roughness of Elba's earlier, more casual experiments in filmmaking (the introduction of Jenny's shoe closet is bizarrely, fascinatingly, jolting--literally); or playfulness with the sound design (given his background and experience in music and audio production, it's hardly surprising Elba would pay attention and have some fun with this oft-neglected element of cinema) for effects both comic (the exaggerated sounds whenever Jenny puts on especially ornate shoes) and atmospheric (the rumbles of feet hitting hard pavement that often drone and intensify in the background, regardless of a scene's setting). Whatever the piece may ultimately lack in substantive story, it definitely compensates in character, both in the literal sense of the solid work Elba coaxes from the whole cast (which also includes Reggie Yates and one of Elba's 7Wallace DJ partners, Shax, in a two-scene, two-line appearance as a painter) and in the already distinctive personality of his still-nascent filmmaking voice, which promises to only polish and sharpen right along with his skill on subsequent projects.
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(Photos by Cath Harries Photography)