In most cases, our phones can feel like a permanent secondary character in our lives. In “Little Boxes,” a movie that had its world premiere at the Bushwick Film Festival last month, writer and director Hannah Cullen uses her debut to explore the tension between the need for human connection and the alternate reality ubiquitous phone usage that we all live in 

Based in Brooklyn, Cullen’s background had mostly been in the world of live theater; among her previous projects were Everything I Was Never Taught, the end/the beginning, performance pieces that mix together dance, theater and film, which she put on at a place in Chelsea called New York Live Arts. Cullen told me that ideas in her first full-length movie came from her own frustrations with technology, social media, and how it impacts relationships. 

“What are we giving up when we have a relationship with our phones?” Cullen asked me on the phone, “What makes life worth living and how do we create experiences and moments where we live in the moment?” she went on.  

Cullen tries to explore this question throughout “Little Boxes,” which weaves documentary-style scripted interviews and experimental dance through a plot centered around four friends in an anonymous New York apartment, set in a soundstage. As the fictional night progresses, each of the character’s dive deeper into a state of trance that forces them to confront their truth and connection to their lives and friendships. 

The movie, which has yet to find a distributor, stars local actors, most of whom Cullen knew from her dance work, Avery-Jai Andrews, Ramiro Batista, Quinn Dixon, and Maggie Joy.

“I’d heard really good things about Bushwick [Film Festival] so it just made sense to submit there,” Cullen told me. The movie has yet to be picked up by any distributors and she says she doesn’t have plans to take her experimental dance movie anywhere else. 

With a background in live performance, theater and choreography, Cullen draws a parallel between the performative nature of social media and dance. The movie stars a handful of New York-based actors, some of whom Cullen had hired from some of her earlier performances at New York Live Arts.

Played by Avery-Jai Andrews, the movie tells the story of a woman named Jordan trying to hold one last get-together with her friends before taking a job in LA, a familiar rite of passage for many in Brooklyn. But the night is disrupted by her friends’ inability to stay present, distracted constantly by texts, posts, and notifications. Eventually, she takes the phones away for the night, forcing her friends to unravel into a night of vulnerable exchanges, confessing to lies, anxieties about the future and unexpressed anger towards each other. 

“The idea was to portray an experience that we are all familiar with,” says Cullen. “Integrating dance and theater in that way, it felt like a natural progression to put that into the camera.”

After she forces her dancers to put their phones away for the night, the lighting in the movie switches from the small apartment’s warm, artificial glow to neon, LED-run changing colors, as Cullen’s actors perform experimental dances that feel inspired by ballet and partner dance as a tool to express isolation, connection and temptations. This all ends with a dream-like sequence involving some parallel universe that shows how their friendships would look if phones weren’t involved, really a spiritual note. 

Cullen tells me that the best way to describe the movie’s whole spiritual motif is probably more Deepak Chopra than anything else. “The moment you’re looking for is now,” she says. 

Images taken from “Little Boxes.”

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