Panda Bear It (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): He sees that panda bear everywhere…

Four years ago, I received an e-mail from a young American independent filmmaker named Evan Kidd, who was quite eager to persuade me to watch his first feature film “Son of Clowns” (2016). Although I had never heard of him or his works, I decided to give him and his first feature film a chance because 1) that would be the interesting first experience for me as a meager movie reviewer who still has a lot to learn and 2) I was intrigued by the main subject of his movie when I watched its trailer. While I did not like his movie enough for recommendation, I wrote a 2-star review anyway, and the review was posted on my blog and then on rogerebert.com (You can read it here, by the way).

During last four years, Kidd made several small works including a short documentary film “Run of the Picture” (2019), which is about a young African American athlete who also tried to be a filmmaker. Again, I was not that satisfied as noticing a number of weak aspects here and there in the documentary, but I willingly pointed out them to Kidd while also recognizing the parts which did work in contrast. As far as I could see from his reply to my e-mail, he seemed to appreciate my feedback, though I was not that good in evaluating films compared to many professional movie reviewers out there.

Anyway, despite my negative responses to his two works, Kidd generously sent me a screener of his latest film “Panda Bear It” several months ago, and I must confess that I let him down a bit. Busy with reviewing many other movies which interested me more, I kept postponing watching it, and I only came to check out its trailer yesterday afternoon. While watching the trailer, I had reasonable doubts on whether the movie could be as successful as intended, but I decided to watch the film itself during that evening, regardless of whether I would be able to review it or not.

It turns out to be not as effective as its creator hoped, but “Panda Bear It” shows me that Kidd has been really getting better in his nascent career during last four years. To be frank with you, I could not react well to its blatantly whimsical story promise, and the movie still shows the visible signs of limited production time and budget (It was shot only with around $500 during seven days, by the way), but the overall result is more polished and assured compared to “Son of Clowns”. As a matter of fact, I came to feel more urge to encourage and support Kidd for watching whatever will come from him in the future.

At the beginning, the movie gradually establishes the depressing emotional status of its young African American hero who has pursued a rap career in his hometown in North Carolina. As reflected by a brief flashback shot, Kamus (Damien Elliott Bynum, a real-life rap musician who is solid in his natural performance) recently lost someone quite dear to him, and we see him still struggling a lot with his consequent grief during a recording session where he miserably fails to perform his latest work.

At least, Kamus has several people who sincerely care about him, but he does not interact that well with any of them. He has lived with his grandmother and a younger brother at his home, and his grandmother is willing to be a matchmaker for him, but he is not particularly interested in letting a stranger come into his life. He has earned his meager living via working in a local convenient store, but he often finds himself too depressed and dispirited to work, and that makes his caring co-worker more concerned about him.

Meanwhile, it turns out that our hero is not so right in his troubled mind. He frequently sees a figure wearing a panda bear costume when he is alone by himself, and we see this figure communicating with him via gestures. It is not ominous or malevolent at all, and it sincerely wants to cheer him up as much as possible, but Kamus remains sad and glum as before without any progress in his artistic work.

This setting distracted me a lot because of its glaring artificial aspects, but, fortunately, the movie gets improved once Kamus is later persuaded to go outside along with his imaginary companion. By his grandmother’s car, they soon leave his hometown, and then they come to spend the following night in the middle of some remote rural area.

Although I still did not buy its story premise, the movie kept engaging me nonetheless. The scene involved with a trio of goofy supporting characters is rather jarring to me, but then the movie comes to get its heart in the right place thanks to the appearance of Eric Hartley, whose supporting turn was incidentally the best thing in “Son of Clowns”. While Kamus’ imaginary companion continued to distract me as before, the following several scenes between Kamus and Hartley’s farmer character are sweet and touching with the genuine sense of human connection, and I found myself wishing that Kidd had trusted his story and performers more instead of emphasizing that damn panda bear, which, in my opinion, is more or less than a quirky story device to make his film a little more distinctive than millions of micro-budget independent films out there.

In conclusion, “Panda Bear It”, which is currently available on Amazon Prime in US, is not wholly without interest although I still cannot wholeheartedly recommend it. I was disappointed again, but I still think Kidd, who also handled editing and cinematography besides directing, writing, and producing it, is a good filmmaker capable of more development and improvement, and I am willing to observe the next steps of his career anyway.

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