top of page
  • Brandon MacMurray

Tea Review and Q+A with director Blake Rice - Palm Springs Shortfest

Tea is a three act live action film set in 1998. It starts off with Nick (Michael Gandolfini) sitting behind a café on an abandoned armchair, using a camcorder to nervously introduce himself to someone he eagerly wants to ask out on a date. The recording balances between innocence and ominousness, constantly course correcting just before it tips the scales. Ultimately we arrive at a somber point of gloominess, as Nick - still on his own - acts out a rejection response.

Despite being mocked by a nearby group of kids Nick keeps practicing, with shots shifting between the camcorder footage and a more modern widescreen look. While practicing the same conversation yet again, he gets stung in the throat by a hornet. The immediate shock coupled with the built up nerves causes Nick to lose his temper and momentarily act out, before settling back down on his chair.

Of course at this point the love interest Tierney (Olivia Nikkanen) enters the scene. Mustering up the courage to put his rehearsal into action Nicks steps forward to introduce himself. Tierney who is in the midst of a smoke break andof what appears to be a shitty day at work responds standoffish with a big sigh and some semi-pleasant platitudes.

All the while the sting from the hornet builds to a full blown allergic reaction and as Nick starts to struggle to breathe as his face and neck swells up. Nick now desperately needs to communicate the situation to an oblivious Tierney as chaos ensues.

Tea is a snapshot taken directly from a simpler time, mirrored in the 90s style of the footage and the worldly fears of the cool kids mocking you or saying hi to the girl you fancy, it is reminiscent of an era many of us look back on fondly. With tender pacing and framing it lets the characters and dialogue shine as it needs to for the story to resonate.

At the same time the film is surprisingly comedic at times. There is a scene just after we have cut from the initial camcorder framing where Olivia’s character is reluctantly taking out the trash in a funny throwaway scene that caught me so off guard I could not help but burst out in laughter. The way that writer / director Blake Winston Rice plays with the mixture of format and pace could have easily felt misaligned or fallen flat, but he makes it look effortlessly smooth and natural.

Inspired by a monologue with the same name written and performed by Isaac Lee, the film flows not unlike a poem, especially in the first act. Mixing in blatant realism with deeper abstract feelings it becomes a small capsule of a collective memory we might not all have lived, but still firmly remember with a warmness in our hearts. Tea is a sweet and heartwarming tale, something I can definitely see myself coming back to rewatching in the years to come and if you are a 90s kid I urge you to do the same.

Review by: Robin Hellgren

Q+A with Director Blake Rice

ShortStick: Thanks for joining us for a Q+A Blake! All four of us here at ShortStick really loved the film. Your short world premiered at the Festival de Cannes Short Film Competition, and now it's headed to the Palm Springs International ShortFest. Could you tell me how the experience of screening the film at such influential festivals has been?:

Blake: It’s been the honor of a lifetime to screen festivals like Cannes and Palm Springs. For about 10 years or so I’ve been making short films, and after Tea’s recent success, the doors that have opened up have been on an entirely different level. Besides meeting and networking with a wide variety of incredibly talented filmmakers - these festivals have opened doors to even more. From representation, publicity, to producers, production companies and even studios - I couldn’t be more grateful for how these festivals have ushered in a new chapter to my movie making career….that is just beginning….

ShortStick: Amazing to hear you getting all of this recognition! After watching a short, I am always interested in discovering how the film’s idea started. The film has a simple plot line but effectively draws the public into a journey of laughter and tension. How did you develop the concept for Tea?: 

Blake: I always was interested in an underdog story, who isn’t? As well as the theme of loneliness, because it’s so universal. Even the most popular kid in school is lonely at times, and TEA (through the lens of comedy) explores all of that. The original concept was inspired by an incredible monologue performed by an actor friend named Isaac Lee - which led us to dive into who this character is, what is their world, and what other players can join in on some wild new stakes. 

ShortStick: So true, loneliness is something we can all relate to, especially after the pandemic. The film is set in 1998, and the first minutes are images of a camera recorder from that period. Where did the idea for the time setting come from, and how was the process of developing the art directing for it?:

Blake: I grew up an 90’s-2000’s kid! I wanted to share the world I came from and related to. It was a blast to put these moods together with my team who also is from the same generation and parts of NJ. Some crucial team members I worked on with this were our costume designer Renee Ryan and production designer Jennifer Guzelian - we like to watch some reference movies/comps like Clerks, start building mood boards, and keep late night text threads going whenever a piece of inspo comes to mind. 

ShortStick: Definitely, as 90-2000s kids ourselves, the inspiration really showed and the work you guys put into creating that feeling was clear and very realistic. Make-up plays a crucial role in the film's tension and comic building. It is an impressive work. How was the brainstorming process of the make-up conceptualization?:

Blake: In addition to our killer HMU Artist, Lindsay Cullen, who I’ve been collaborating with on films together for years - we were so lucky to work with our incredibly talented SFX artist Mackenzie Brooks who brought all of these SFX looks together. “Mack” would kick over some inspo that was incredibly accurate to this type of sting/wound as well as violently hilarious….if curious what it looks like just google “bee stings on face” and see what comes up…if you REALLY want to laugh google “dog face bee stings” they’re sad and adorable haha. But Mackenzie did her thing on this, we did a SFX test or two on Michael as well to make sure the different phases of the makeup played well and read correctly on camera. Also, if Mackenzie wasn’t 45 minutes early on our last SFX look we would not have been able to capture that magic hour sun look - she saved out butts!! 

ShortStick: What a team effort! Michael Gandolfini plays the lead character going through a heavy allergic breakdown. How was the construction of this character, and how was it to work alongside Michael?

Blake: I couldn’t speak more highly of my experience on Tea with Michael. Not only was every interaction extremely professional, honest, giving, and thoughtful - he also totally trusted me with this story which meant the world. We started as just friends talking about this character, and then transitioned quickly to in-person sessions in the studio diving into the comedic beats, pain points, and physicality of the role. Michael also read off camera with each person who came in to audition for the Tierney role…I’m talking gasping, choking, heimlich-ing himself - he gave it his all and I’m so proud of the performance on screen. I’d be honored and flattered and hope to work with him again. 

ShortStick: Yeah, he seems like a real gem and its cool to see the bond the two of you have creating something special on screen. The film cinematography features a mix of a cam recorder footage with a well-lighted environment and plenty of flares towards the end of it. What were the aesthetic references you gave to Cinematographer Matheus Bastos while composing the film's visuals?:

Blake: Ohhhh I wish I could tag Matheus in for this question, he’s our DP who lead our amazing camera team. I knew we were loving some references from killer films like The Last Black Man in San Francisco, American Honey and Juno. Something romantic, a little retro, and 90’s nostalgic in feel - with a late summer glow to the exteriors. The story leans more romanized in visuals and we wanted to dive into that look cinematically. 

ShortStick. Yes! Completely here for those references. Love those films. Speaking of, here at ShortStick, we are always curious to discover what filmmakers are watching and drawing inspiration from. What is a film you saw recently that you loved or really stood out to you?:

Blake: This is such a hard one to answer. I really love last years movie To Leslie, and I find myself watching some older movies that help register the gritty, grounded, relatable world with comedic undertones that I’m always chasing. Movies like Silver Linings Playbook, and The Wrestler are heavy pieces of inspo for my upcoming work as well. Thanks so much for having me on everyone - talk more soon!

Congratulations on the film's journey, Blake. Thanks for talking to ShortStick!



The short end of the stick: The inferior part, the worse side of an unequal deal

When it comes to cinema and the Oscars it always feels like short films and getting the short end of the stick. Lack of coverage, lack of predictions from experts and an afterthought in the conversation. With this site we hope to change that, highlighting shorts that stick with you, predictions, and news on what is happening in the world of shorts. 

Posts Archive


No tags yet.
bottom of page