Photo by Kleigh Balugo
Being an artist in the twenty-first century will crush your soul. Thanks to the double-edged sword that is the Internet, it’s easier than ever to access entertainment. The audience for my work is more global than it ever could have been. On the downside, the competition has never been more fierce. I dread a future in which my stories will go undiscovered, an experience that I’m sure many other creative types are familiar with.
While I consider myself a writer of short stories and novels, I find inspiration in art of many other forms. One of my favorites being the animations of Jonni Phillips. Jonni is a SoCal-based animator who studied at the renowned CalArts university. Her work immediately stuck out to me just because of how different it was from typical Internet animation. No edgy humor that riffs on nerd culture, no in-your-face parodies on whatever’s popular at the moment. The work of Jonni Phillips is a surreal and experimental nightmare of shapes and characters that you have never seen before, speaking sentences that could not come out of an unoriginal mind. The most impressive thing of all is that this is done with complete honesty. The art of Jonni isn’t something that attempts to be “fake deep,” like the kind of stuff you hear at a high school open mic night. The art is there without any pretense.
Another outstanding feature of Jonni’s work is her status as a self-starter. Her Patreon shows that over 700 people are making monthly contributions to her projects. Many modern artists have taken the route of crowdfunding to ensure sustainability for their projects, and it seems that it will be a staple for independent creators moving forward. While it would be amazing to see what Jonni could accomplish with the support of a major studio, she has taken keen advantage of the Internet age, allowing her own fans to support her directly, and publicly distribute her work for all to see.
Reaching far beyond short-form animation, Jonni has shown her ability to tell longer stories. In 2019, she produced a forty-five-minute animated film titled The Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia as her final project for CalArts. Throughout 2020, Jonni released a ten-episode miniseries titled Secrets and Lies in a Town of Sinners, all of which acted as a prequel for her first feature-length animated film, Barber Westchester. I believe that Jonni deserves a larger audience, as well as general praise for the work she has accomplished so far. So, I decided to give a fair review of her most recent creation.
It is not necessary to watch Secrets and Lies before watching Barber Westchester, but I would recommend viewing it for the sake of context, and to become adjusted to Jonni’s style. Many animators have chosen a simpler or cost-effective medium like Flash or computer-generated modeling. Meanwhile, Jonni has made handrawn animation a permanent home for her work. The loose form of 2D animation is needed to capture her style, since it allows for a greater range of overexaggerated movements. I personally think that the uncanny and moldable character design adds to the feeling of discomfort that the story distills in your heart and soul. The animated world of Jonni Phillips is erratic, broken, and beautiful. Not to mention, it’s all completely free to view on her YouTube channel.
The film tells the story of Barber, a kid with a passion for space and telescopes. They work for the mayor as the town’s official astronomer. Right away, you get the sense that normal real-world logic does not apply here. The order of things is loose and imaginative, which is greatly supported by the artistic design of the town. For example, the mayor lives in a tower that looks like her face, in the same way that a Saturday morning cartoon character’s house may reflect their vibrant personality. Once you accept this logic, it makes the other rules of the universe easier to grasp. Why would a mayor of a town have an “official astronomer” working for her? Because it is animation, and anything goes. This is the kind of story that animation was truly made for, embracing any vision and possibility.
While presenting itself as a silly cartoon, the themes of Barber Westchester are very complex as it wrestles with the impact of authority and deception on a troubled mind. When the mayor sends Barber to the town of Mountainia to work for NASA, they find out that space is in fact a lie. The sky is a projection created by conspirators around the world. Pictures of planets are merely bubbles of paint on a black background. NASA itself is just four people sitting in an empty room playing a board game. Barber experiences distrust, lies, and betrayal from all the authority figures in their life. Their family, their government, and even science has let them down. Every time Barber sleeps, they are tormented by visions of a floating monster speaking gibberish. This seeds an unwelcoming feeling throughout the entire story. Barber Westchester is not a film with comfort in mind. Discomfort is foundation for the story’s theme.
Lost and distressed, Barber wanders around and talks with many different people in the town of Mountainia. This is where I think the storytelling shines the most. Barber makes friends, ranging from their housemates to a talking mole in the ground, and each one shares a backstory that contributes to their philosophy on life. As with many of Jonni’s films, there is no tangible endpoint to the protagonist’s quest. The story merely ends with no guaranteed solution. While some viewers might find this frustrating or feel as if they are cheated out of a satisfying ending, I felt a deep impact by the experience. This is the closest to a true-to-life story as you can get. Barber Westchester teaches us that life doesn’t end when you reach a final answer – it is merely lived, and it is each passing moment that counts.
There is so much to appreciate in this movie that you can’t find anywhere else. But it is not a movie without flaws. The ninety-minute runtime is an impressive achievement for an independent animator, but not every moment in the film seems to deserve a place in the narrative. Since this project took several years to complete, I imagine that a lot of Jonni’s vision changed throughout the process. As a result, some moments and ideas are left underdeveloped. For example, the interactions back in Barber’s hometown hinge on the worldbuilding established in the Secrets and Lies miniseries. As a standalone film, this portion of the story comes off as less developed and underutilized. While I mentioned that the lack of closure was an intentional artistic choice that contributed to the theme, there are some subplots that feel that they belonged in a different story altogether. Not everything adds up perfectly, and not every moment of screen time is as economical as it could have been.
The shortcomings of Barber Westchester are completely forgivable. This is a passion project done by one visionary animator and her army of talented associates. For anyone with an affinity for animation and surrealist storytelling, I cannot recommend Barber Westchester enough. If you have a passion for LGBT stories, add this film to your master list of queer media. For anyone who is interested in supporting independent artists who can deliver on their promises, Jonni Phillips is a creator worth keeping tabs on. Even if you are not a fan of animation, but you are an independent artist yourself, Jonni’s work should inspire you to keep creating despite any obstacles that come your way. I often look at my own stories and wonder, “Will anyone enjoy this? How can I find an audience when all I write is the niche and bizarre?” Jonni gives me inspiration to keep getting my work out there. Jonni is an artist who does not let obstacles get in the way of her potential. Sometimes, a work of art isn’t meant to be enjoyed by everyone. But when you can find something that speaks to you on a such deep and personal level, it’s something you can’t easily forget. Possibly, Barber Westchester will be that film for you.