Natalia Dyer shines in writer/director Jac Cron’s Chestnut, an intimate and emotionally charged story complemented by creative and yet simple cinematography
I am a sucker for a coming-of-age story, especially when they have an angle that I consider to be unique. Enter Chestnut from Utopia and Neon Heart Productions, a film that had a couple other ingredients I loved in addition to an interesting premise. Having Natalia Dyer in the lead role is going to get me to at the very least keep an eye out for your film. Then you have the fact that this film was written and directed by a female director in Jac Cron.
Finally, there is the premise: Chestnut is a queer coming-of-age drama that centers on Annie James (Natalia Dyer) a recent college graduate. Annie has gotten the job of her dreams and is preparing to move to California by the fall but hesitates to leave her college town in Pennsylvania behind. That hesitation is amplified during the summer when she becomes entangled in a relationship with Tyler (Rachel Keller) and Danny (Danny Ramirez).
I have not heard of a premise quite like this before, so that obviously was what locked me in for the ride. As it turned out, that ride was so much more than I could have ever expected it to be.
Natalia Dyer gives a brilliantly subtle performance as Annie in Chestnut when some might have done too much. She keeps things grounded and authentic. Dyer captures a character at a crossroads to the point where it got a little too relatable for me. The character may be fresh out of college but her feelings of being hesitant to leave a place she has been for a long time for new surroundings can be universal.
You can feel the weight of her being pulled one way, in her relationships and overall life, but you feel her heart pulling her too. I saw myself in ways I was not expecting to, which is a major hallmark of good character work. Chestnut centers its narrative around Annie and takes viewers on an emotionally poignant coming-of-age journey. She starts off as more of your typical protagonist of a story like this, but you see her grapple with the end of her college career and the looming pressure of having to move on.
You get the sense, with her hesitation to leave, that Annie is not fully at peace with the conclusion of her time in Pennsylvania. Dyer portrays her as someone that is very introverted and succeeds. With Annie feeling so introverted, you can buy that this character has not gotten out much, and perhaps has missed out on what one would consider the typical college lifestyle. Seeing her let loose is a sort of relief for her and the audience, but it also makes things more complicated once she starts hanging out with Tyler and Danny.
What happens after graduation, and you are hit with this wave of emotions after accomplishing this thing that took four years or more of your life? That is one of the many themes that Chestnut focuses in on and is part of what makes this story written by Jac Cron such a great and unique watch.
Dyer and her costar Rachel Keller have almost excessive amounts of chemistry as Annie and Tyler in Chestnut. From the minute these two cross paths, the sparks are evident, and you will instantly want to see where their relationship goes. That relationship, with its tremendous highs and lows, is fascinating to watch unfold. The way that this film looks at sexuality through Annie and Tyler is something I have not really seen in a while.
Chestnut does not waste the viewer’s time; it moves at a smooth pace and introduces each of the main characters quickly. Another plus of writer/director Jac Cron’s script is that the characters outside of Annie are written well and like our main protagonist, they are incredibly realistic. Rachel Keller’s Tyler intrigued me so much, and honestly once I thought I had a read on the character, she would turn around and do/say something that surprised me. While I disagreed with some of the decisions she made, they also felt in line with both how a real person would act in her shoes, and organic to how Tyler was written.
The same can be said of Annie, she feels incredibly authentic to what a typical person in their mid-twenties would be like. She is trying to get a handle on not only who she is, but who she wants to be in the world now that she has graduated from college. Parts of Annie are still trying to hold on to that, experiment more with her choices, but there is this weight telling her to decide about moving on.
Of our main characters, Danny (Danny Ramirez) feels like an odd duck. We learn about him throughout Chestnut and these things can give him depth. Yet, he still feels to me like more of a cog in the lives of Annie and Tyler rather than a fully realized person. He nearly gets there, thanks in part to Ramirez’s fine work in the role. There is just something missing with him that I cannot put my finger on. That is my only real knock on Chestnut, but it is one that I am fine with at the same time. Mostly because this is Annie’s story, and Danny does help further her development. He may not be as fully realistic and compelling to me as Annie and Tyler, but he does what he is supposed to in terms of the narrative.
Coming back to themes, one of the more powerful elements of the narrative of Chestnut is that certain people, even if they are not always in our lives, can leave a tremendous impact. That is something that audiences will notice when it comes to Annie’s relationships with Tyler and Danny as well as some of her previous relationships. These two characters that Annie meets are exposing our protagonist to new things, giving her what feels like peace with her college life ending, and yet at the same time, Tyler and Danny are almost tethering her to this location. The peace that the duo give Annie is fleeting, and the weight of her life changing is still hanging over her.
Thus, the question becomes, what is it going to take for that weight to be lifted, and for Annie to achieve true peace with the end of this chapter of her life? There is also the matter of what becomes of her relationships with Tyler and Danny once she finds that peace. The trio has bonded in many ways, but how long is it going to last, and will it keep Annie from achieving what she genuinely wants out of life? So many questions are asked throughout this story, and we join Annie on her quest to answer them.
As it should be, the central focus is on Annie rather than her love story. As much as I just spent talking about her relationships with Tyler and Danny, that is not the point of this story at all. Annie James is the character that matters most in Chestnut: her arc is memorable and gives the film heart without everything becoming cliched. You will constantly be in her shoes and by the time the credits roll, there may be tears in your eyes. You may not know where they are coming from, but Annie and her story have the ability to naturally bring those tears out of you.
The cinematography is spectacular, it captures being in a small college town and makes every moment feel that much more intimate. The way certain moments and conversations are shot makes you feel like you are Annie. This feeling is compounded by the lighting really complementing the film’s best and most emotional moments. There is a brilliant lighting moment that members of the LGBTQ+ community should be able to recognize right away, and I will not dare spoil here.
Also worth pointing out is the Chestnut soundtrack, which adds a lot to the indie/coming-of-age aspects of the film. I had not heard any of the songs used before and honestly that helped me sink deeper into this story. The soundtrack gives the correct energy to key moments as well.
Chestnut is likely destined to be an indie darling behind Natalia Dyer’s performance in the lead role. The film is phenomenally written, intimate, and maintains its authenticity throughout. That authenticity is what allows audiences to genuinely feel a wide range of emotions as they watch, and it is beautiful.
Chestnut premiered at Frameline47 on June 15, 2023.