The Stained Club is a short film about a group of kids who each have their own unique markings, which take the form of oddly-colored scrapes and wounds. They play together in a suburban junkyard of sorts, fashioning toys out of discarded objects. There is an underlying melancholy in these scenes, the source of which can be traced to a detached mother. When she fails to comfort the protagonist after a fight, his stains worsen. He learns how to solve his problems on his own, and gains a new kind of strength in the process. 

Self-reliance is a powerful theme in this film. The protagonist, a mousy little boy with bushy brown hair, not only feeds and entertains himself but also narrates the film itself. He introduces his friends as if they were his prized possessions, careful to make note of their prominent traits and likable features. As a little kid would, he leaves out context or backstory. At first, it bothered me that I didn’t know where the parents were or how the kids keep getting their “stains,” but ambiguity is ultimately important here because it helps foster the feeling of wonder that happens in childhood.

Ambiguity is also one of the reasons why animation is such a successful medium for the film. We can’t be distracted by miscellaneous textures that might make their way into live-action. The Stained Club exists in a relatively barren world, fuzzy except for the parts that are in focus. The people are the most abstract element of this film, with dots for eyes and big round ears. We do not expect these unfamiliar albeit adorable creatures to act like real humans, so it’s okay that they don’t talk as much. The emotion is there, which is all we need.

In the moments where the little boy is not narrating, we get to experience life with him. We stare into a box of cereal from his point of view, then up at his hands as he lays on his bed. Loneliness sinks in. Moments like these are where the film is most powerful, especially when the boy is brave enough to approach his mother. She sits in an armchair amidst a collection of beer bottles, bony hand resting on the remote. We never see her face, just the little boy who continues to ask, “mama?” his eyes shaking with hope. Through masterful cinematography and suspense, this scene perfectly depicts how crushing it is to feel unloved by your mom, even for the littlest things. It’s also a nod to the mother’s pain, which explains his uninterrupted freedom.

While the animation quality is fantastic overall, my one complaint is in the modeling of Joshua’s inventions. They blend into the background and have a sharp, artificial appearance. I am not convinced they’re real and get a little anxious in scenes where the characters interact with his creations. The basketball, on the other hand, is very believable. This is possibly due to the bounce sound effect its paired with. Joshua’s inventions have a lighter sound, almost as if they’re made from tin cans. Maybe they should sound heavier?

Mechanics aside, I really appreciate what The Stained Club is doing. Rather than committing to a single plot like a number of other short films, which can sometimes feel as though the film is dragging through molasses, The Stained Club features a snapshot of several much larger plots. It’s exhilarating! Real-life is like this – not always linear. The film leaves some questions unanswered, particularly about the backstory of the other kids. Who is actually bullying them? Is it their parents, or other kids? I feel like a longer film would address these questions. Still, it gets the important stuff right. Big stuff, like how to love oneself and in turn love others. And, it’s well-animated. Watch it!