(Author’s note: Andrea Mark-Wolanin is both a contributor to this site and a dear friend.)
Boston filmmaker Andrea Mark-Wolanin made her debut at last year’s Boston Underground Film Festival screening her entry to the ABC’s of Death competition, M Is For Mundane. While that short gave a hint at Ms. Wolanin’s talent, her follow up Penta feels a lot more like a talent kicking open the door and arriving on the scene. Set against a science fiction backdrop in a not too distant future, Penta brings to screen an all too real scenario that threatens a countless number of women.
Sweet Penta is hailed as “the biomechanical companion for the discerning connoisseur.” As envisioned by the company that created her, Penta possesses the perfect traits for the lonely bachelor that orders her. Along with physical beauty she has been programmed to be obedient, to enjoy the same activities as her owner, and to cater to his every need while never expressing any of her own. By twisting a few parts in place and plugging in nodes to the correct ports, Adam (Shaun Callaghan) only has to wait a half a day to connect with his perfect woman.
While taken out of context the moments of the new couple laughing hand in hand, or canoodling on the sofa should not give one pause, Wolanin never lets the viewer forget the fact that Sweet Penta’s out of the box personality have been lab tested and scientifically engineered to meet the expectations of male entitlement. Even during the serene moments of romantic bliss featured prominently in the opening segment of Penta, the looming sense of discomfort and hint of a dark turn never feels far off. As created by her corporate lab, Penta is a woman without agency. There are some very specific choices made in her wardrobe choices, the couple’s body language and the tight framing of Dayla and Callaghan that are reminiscent of the 1950’s era marked by the idea of a submissive housewife and a “Father Knows Best” gender dynamic.
It’s not until Penta starts to make incremental steps into exploring the world on her own that Adam’s insecurities come roaring to the surface in the form of emotional and physical violence. As Penta begins to take tentative steps towards independence, Adam puts his foot down and asserts his dominance, curbing her desires before they blossom into something larger. As Adam, Callaghan embodies the inadequacies found in a specific kind of male who not only has no desire for, but explicitly fears the idea of an equal partnership. In a fit of rage Adam cuts off one of Penta’s arms as a means of punishment, exposing the wire and steel under her soft surfaces and reminding her that she’s something less than human. This initial action sets off an all to familiar and repeated pattern where Penta loses more of herself in both a physical and emotional sense, the light going out of her eyes as Adam’s punishments continue. Penta paints a clear portrait at how abusers see their victims as “less than,” blaming the people they’re hurting for bringing it on themselves and seeing their own role as more of a teacher attempting to correct faulty behaviors. By the time Adam has had his fill with his former robotic lover, the events become tough to stomach.
Dayla manages to bring true depth to her performance as the robot girlfriend brought to life. She brings a sweetness to the role, and a very childlike wonder and awe at the larger world around her. She manages to convey an honest sense of satisfaction at Penta’s smaller victories and discoveries as she explores her new world while retreating someplace deep and small into herself as Adam looms large and threatening over her. A fixture in the Boston performance art scene, Dayla continues to grow as an actress, bringing a screen presence and charm that transfixes audiences.
The characteristic of innocence Dayla brings to the role makes the final turn all the more of a gut punch. Penta taps into a wealth of thematic veins, but what stands out is its exploration of how a person loves is so hugely influenced by how they were loved. Without diving headlong into spoiler territory, the closing moments drive home the idea that abuse tends to be a perpetual motion machine, passed like a virus from one victim to the next. For Penta, her actions do not come from a place of wanting to hurt the people, but from the misguided sense of love she learned from Adam. It’s abuse masked as “correction” and it’s not only heartbreaking to see the end result of this misconception but to also recognize the look of satisfaction towards a task well done that Dayla wears in the short film’s closing shot.
(PENTA makes its world premiere at the Boston Underground Film Festival Friday, March 27th at 5:45pm as part of the Homegrown Horror program.)