INDIANAPOLIS, October 20, 2015 – At the ongoing Heartland Film Festival, catching the new short film Group B is like entering a time machine. We’re back in 1986 at the height of the European-style rally driving era. The tightly-wound compact cars here boast 600, 700, even 800 horsepower. Most of the roads are dirt. The spectators line the road’s edge, literally leaning into the racecourse. There is no place for an out-of-control car to go, except into the crowd or into an obstacle that is so rugged that even the wild race fans can’t stand on it.
At night, it’s worse. Drivers can’t see beyond their headlights, and their headlights illuminate only a couple hundred feet at best – maybe a second’s worth of road at a hundred miles an hour. Drivers know where they’re going at top speed only because their on-board human navigator is telling them what the road will do next.
It is obvious that Shane is returning from a hiatus after an accident that occurred while he was driving that took the life of his navigator. Flashbacks, a dog-eared photograph, and some dialogue tell us that Shane is back in a race car for the first time in a long time.
His new navigator, Martin, is an older fellow, aware of Shane’s trauma and his demons. But Martin is committed to living in the present, and the present begins minutes before the race. “Ready?” he asks.
After Shane’s not-too-convincing assurance, he says, “You’re not the only one in this car.” Martin and Shane strap into the car, stage, and wait for the start signal. Shane looks and acts like he’s ready to take off, when the race is red-flagged (stopped) just two seconds before Shane is supposed to launch.
Shane and Martin get out and wait in solemn silence as the medical chopper lifts into the air, transporting someone – (someone they know? a spectator?) – to emergency medical care. But when they climb back into the car, Shane is clearly rattled, his finger shaking so badly as it hovers over the START button that Martin’s steady hand comes forth to guide him as the older veteran reassures him, “I’m with you. I’m with you.”
In just 20 gripping minutes, director Nick Rowland gives us the tension and realism of rally racing and more, right down to the rakish camera angles and the heart-stopping interplay between serenity and violent action.
Actors Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) and Michael Smiley are believable in their roles as Shane and Martin. We are not just watching them; we are in the car.
Along with these men, we are feeling the loss, the dread, the uncertainty, the sadness, the resolve. We feel what it’s like to exchange jabs among teams and drivers, even when the race is stopped and racers dismount and gather near the start line, waiting for news of whatever brought the action to a halt, with only the sound of a chopper’s rotor providing hard information. “I don’t like driving through human chicanes,” one driver mutters, to no one in particular. Martin offers, channeling the great racer of the 1950s, Sir Stirling Moss, “You can always slow down a bit.”
Shane appears in control for the first few minutes of the race, which are shot realistically. Then, he loses audio communication with his navigator, driving “deaf,” and in a trance, replaying his mind the night of his accident.
In moments (or minutes – we can’t tell), Martin’s cool but professional voice comes back, penetrating and burning off Shane’s mental fog. Shane is soon racing as he always did, with Martin’s directions keeping him at top speed through the pastoral countryside. Roll credits.
In sum, this visceral short film captures the heart and soul of what it feels like to race.
It’s difficult to verbalize the twist in the gut, the “bubble” of concentration, the butterflies, the dread and the hope, the elation that is racing. But anyone who has ever competed in motorsports will know those feelings, those intense, gut-wrenching sensations. And now, anyone who wants to understand these feelings and sensations can get close to experiencing them too, thanks to the impact of this short twenty minutes of film, the exquisite study of racing that is Group B.
As a race film, this one is too short. We want more, even if for many, rally cars and their stories can be an acquired taste.
But as a tale that grapples with the daunting task of conquering one’s demons, Group B is as good as it gets.