This article appeared in the April 14, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

It’s Raining Frogs Outside (Maria Estela Paiso, 2022)

Two portraits of young women who explode—both literally and figuratively—are the highlights of the short-film programs at this year’s New Directors/New Films. In program one, North Pole initially appears to be a dutifully dreary portrait of awkward teen girlhood, but Marija Apcevska’s inventive short upends expectations at every turn. Margo (Antonija Belazelkoska) has something like a boyfriend, though their relationship remains nonsexual, for which her girlfriends tease her. At first she seems to fall in the tradition of gawky, bullied teen heroines like Carrie, lurking in the locker room as more conventionally attractive, Instagram-ready peers task her with filming a group dance for social media, excluding her from the frame. But the mean girls turn out to be surprisingly supportive—the first of the film’s several inversions.

Apcevska and DP Vladimir Samoilovski lean into the textured grain of 16mm film, which nicely accentuates and articulates the fog slowly swirling over the Macedonian landscape. (North Pole is the first film from that country that ever screened at Cannes, having premiered in last year’s festival.) As social pressure incites Margo to lash out physically in a quasi–wrestling match with her boyfriend, the film erupts into something beyond naturalism. A surprise freeze-frame in the closing scenes confirms that North Pole’s realist surface masks stranger and more playful formal depths.

Opening program two, Filipino director Maria Estela Paiso’s It’s Raining Frogs Outside is, in many ways, North Pole’s polar opposite: a partially animated work whose through line isn’t narrative but rather its protagonist’s melancholy internal monologue about COVID-19 and isolation. The longer Maya (Alyana Cabral, who also wrote the glitchy ambient score) is stuck in her childhood home, the more her body mutates. The title comes from one of the short’s most arresting images, as the biggest on-screen amphibian shower since Magnolia pours upon a sunny backyard. “It’s been difficult to find joy in life recently,” muses Maya. “The monotony of every day, the lack of physical contact.” If these emotions feel overly familiar after the last two years, they’re merely the starting point for a film that, like North Pole, sneaks up on viewers in unexpected ways.

Credited with executing her own stop-motion, Paiso worked alongside a small VFX team to create startling images that embrace the DIY possibilities of computer animation. As she isolates, Maya’s face morphs and objects emerge from it; floating in virtual space, her head suddenly implodes. At another moment, a layer of CG gauze makes her look like Naido, the unnervingly eyeless woman in Twin Peaks: The Return. Building to a full-body molting of sorts, It’s Raining Frogs Outside makes productive use of the solitude imposed by COVID-19 lockdowns, stretching and distorting Maya’s exterior self to match her internal discombobulation.

Vadim Rizov is director of editorial operations at Filmmaker magazine.