Justin O’Neal Miller’s Peggy is a truly polarising watch, its obvious strengths serving the unfortunate purpose of making its weaknesses all the more infuriating.

Peggy presents a caricature of the self-serving social purpose of event organisation. When this fact is fully realised, as with its lavish and beguiling set design, it fuels the film’s intended tone and purpose.

However, when the approach of certain filmmaking aspects are over the top and they don’t quite land…well, that is where this film falls short.

The short follows the thoughts and actions of a group of dysfunctional adults at the birthday party of a local socialite’s child. Social climbing is high on the agenda and the children’s party is presented as little more than a facade for its real purpose of engineering opportunities for advancement.

The viewer is afforded the internal monologuing of guests with the dubious privilege of having been invited to Peggy’s party and their disdain for their host becomes clear. Peggy’s central character is over the top to the point of pantomime villainy and her friend’s thinly veiled hate drives the tension and conflict of the piece.

Sarah Blackman in Peggy

Sarah Blackman in Peggy

Refreshingly, the film’s biggest strength is it’s set and costume design, oft-unappreciated aspects of filmmaking. Director Miller makes reference to the visual motif of a rainbow when discussing design elements, saying that it was liberating to stumble across this theme as it embodies an “ephemeral object that you can never quite reach”. With the party guests clear agenda of dethroning Peggy’s hierarchical position ultimately unsuccessful, it is clear how this device directly benefits the tone and message of the piece.

Emphasis on design is to be expected given Miller’s illustrious background as credited art director on such Hollywood blockbusters as First Man, Baby Driver and Ant Man. Furthermore, he was involved with set design on AMC’s The Walking Dead and in the Art department for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Parts One and Two. Set and costume designs work in tandem in this film to present visually arresting palettes, such as floral shirts in the foreground colour matching with bright columns on a bouncy castle in the background. These techniques are clear triumphs for Miller’s vision.

The use of humour is a further triumph. The character performances are arresting and well developed, creating a believable social sphere to be poked fun at. Use of slow motion is well utilised to give us excruciating close ups of character reactions to the carnage that ultimately unfolds at the gathering. Cleverly, the viewer is left in little doubt as to whether the party is for Peggy or her child. Even during moments of gift giving, the child is cropped to be partially out of shot.

The script features moments of cutting social commentary in order to ridicule pressures inherent in the social media age. Moments where adults at the party deliberately try to embarrass Peggy (Sarah Blackman) by corrupting her perfect child with gifts like BB guns, explicit Rap CD’s and GTA video games, provide some really interesting moments of character power dynamics. The film’s most striking scene occurs with the raucous reappearance of a local neighbourhood owl, which bares striking resemblance to the party’s host, an incident that is worth watching Peggy just to experience.

Sarah Blackman and Muretta Moss in Peggy

Sarah Blackman and Muretta Moss in Peggy

Whilst the film’s extravagant set and embellished plot moments offer examples of Peggy’s OTT approach working in its favour, there are several others that don’t. Through voice-overs, viewers are afforded the inner most thoughts of the characters at the party, but unfortunately, more often than not, these moments are unnecessary and retract from the nuanced performances of the cast. Peggy’s behaviour is often contemptuous and the reactions of the other actors would be enough to convey this message to the viewer, without the slightly cringe worthy voice-over instances. The addition of spectacularly inspid inner monologues, did take some of the glossy sheen off the piece.

Similarly, the film could have benefited from a more stripped back soundtrack. The music choices often find themselves obtrusive, and for an 11 minute film are over used.

There are times when Peggy’s OTT aesthetic is a joy, as with its set and costume design. Other aspects, such as its soundtrack and voice overs, unfortunately are a real let down.

Verdict ★★★☆☆

Contributor Sam Briggs was fortunate enough to touch base with Peggy Director/Writer Justin O’Neal Miller, who offered a highly insightful analysis of his production methods.

SB: The costume and set design on show at Peggy’s party make for a really striking visual setting. How important were these elements for your vision of the film?

JM: My background in art direction and my producer’s background in the camera department. It means that we are usually trying to compose a very specific look for our collaborations. In this instance, we knew that we wanted it to be bright and vibrant, but it was especially liberating to stumble upon the visual motif of the rainbow in particular as this ethereal object that you can never quite reach. For the set design, we knew that the party had to be sufficiently over the top to wow the audience, just as it does the characters. We were really really lucky to have that backyard available to us. Using costumes to marry the actors to the set is a very important component of the visual design, but almost every costume from this project came from the actor’s closets! Sometimes the frugality of independent filmmaking lends itself to happy accidents and other times you have to work really hard to pull off your vision. I’d say that Peggy was somewhere in-between.

SB: One of the most notable aspects of Peggy is the use of voice overs, giving us the innermost thoughts of the disdainful characters at the party. Talk me through your decision to include these?

JM: I really appreciate you calling this out! The decision to provide internal monologue for multiple characters was halfway born out of the necessity to show that there is both universal reverence and disdain for Peggy. Each character has a different flavor and relationship with Peggy. Seeing how their characters are internally motivated was critical to moving the story along at a quick pace. We studied different examples of how to pull this off (one of the chief examples being Airplane!) and we were quite careful with how to photograph it, to make sure that the audience knew what was happening. One fun note: all of the “R” rated material is in people’s heads (which is quite fitting for the South) and that allowed us to make a PG-13 version of the film so that my kids could see it!

Peggy Title Card

Peggy Title Card

SB: The central premise that, even at a children’s party, this group of dysfunctional adults are unable to leave behind their envy and desire for social climbing is brilliant. What was the inspiration behind this idea?

JM: I have four children and I have a memory not too far removed from Peggy, in which my son is receiving presents that I would never let him have otherwise: rot-your-teeth-out candy, zombie guns, video game credits etc. Like, everyone was taking jabs at, or trying to sabotage, our parenting style. I remember looking down at the beer in my hand and all the alcohol being consumed before realising that these birthday parties are as much, if not more, about the adults than the kids. We hyperbolised this in the short, but I do think there is something very strange in this image-driven, social media frenzied culture that lends itself to creating visual memories at these over-the-top parties that become networking events as much as a celebration of a child’s life.

SB: The script has some really funny moments, such as a child unwisely being bought a BB gun by a man with an eye patch. How important a part does the film’s humour have in putting across the story you wanted to tell? 

JM: It has been such a pleasure to view this film with a live audience and to hear reactions from enthusiastic fans that “know a Peggy” or “used to be a Peggy” and the kind of laughter that people enjoy while watching this film feels almost medicinal in nature. I’ve recently been thinking about comedy, and humour in general, as a mechanism through which we deal with the uncomfortable. I think that people find the humour in this project very cathartic and healing. It seems to me that is because we are laughing at Peggy (and the Peggy we all know), but we are also laughing at ourselves and the pressure that social media and our culture puts on us these days. We try to live up to the expectations of our curated, online profiles and sometimes we feel like the person that can hold it all together, while nearly bursting at the seams. And then we browse our friends’ profiles and know like we’ll never match up to that. I think we are designed to never be quite fully satisfied and Peggy acknowledges that imperfection yet says: “it’s ok to laugh at it for a minute.”Pe