When I asked the Austin-based filmmaker Katherine Propper if she remembers her first summer in Texas, she took a beat, then said, “Yeah, it was really, really hot,” with a laugh.
Propper moved to Austin in 2016, a place where the temperatures can eclipse a hundred degrees during the summer’s peak—a climate more suitable for lizards than for hydrated humans. The most distinct feature is, perhaps, the sound that the heat makes: air and dirt and pavement sizzling and hissing beneath the sun, like Dante’s white-noise machine. If you are outside, one hopes you are in water; if you are inside, you may be sitting in a dark room, pretending that shadows will create a habitable environment. In the Texas heat, one doesn’t get sun-kissed—one gets sun-face-sucked.
But those scorching summers also have an element of magic to them, when time can feel as ethereal and delirious as the very mirages induced by the sunlight. Thus the season made for an ideal backdrop to Propper’s fictional short “Birds,” a film of intercut vignettes that takes place in Austin, Propper’s home base, and combines the dreamy extremes of a summer day with the equally dreamy extremes of teen-age life . The short features a generous ensemble cast of nonprofessional young actors—from a group of three cheerleaders, making a TikTok, flipping on a trampoline, looking for ways to escape tedium, to a couple, falling in love for what may be the first time. There are BMX bikers; a pair of urban explorers who run into a shirtless stranger; two girls cooling off at the city’s famous swimming hole Barton Springs, one of whom can’t get over an ex; and the ex himself, who waxes philosophical with his cat in, alas, a dark room. At first glance, it appears that the groups have no distinct connection to one another—that they are merely part of the same collage. It’s not until the ex with the cat swipes through Snapchat and sees a story from one of the urban explorers, a “sexy_beast_543,” that the viewer realizes there may be more that ties the kids than relative age and location. That kinship, though not explicit, feels like yet another magical element to this boundless summer day.
“I really like that timelessness of summertime, where days are kind of unending, and you don’t have anything to do or any responsibilities or priorities, and you’re kind of just hanging out and exploring with your friends or significant others,” Propper said. The summer vacations of high school have a special quality—that abundance of free time, the luxury of boredom that will dissipate with work and adult obligations. But the film is as much about a particular place as it is about a particular time of life. Propper described the short as a love letter to Austin, and the project demanded her to get creative with the city’s communities and resources. To make a film in Austin—far from the omnipresent filmmaking culture of Los Angeles and New York, or even the blockbuster playground that is Georgia—requires some moviemaking moxie. To obtain a diverse cast for “Birds,” Propper bypassed traditional casting sites to find locals via Instagram or actual encounters. Her set locations were either free or affordable, and mostly outdoors, an opportunity to showcase Austin’s natural landscape. And the filming equipment was provided by the University of Texas at Austin, where she was attending film school at the time.
What results is an Austin-born-and-bred homage that is meditative, romantic, and punctuated by glimpses and outbursts of spontaneity—all characteristics that could be aligned with Propper’s former employer Terrence Malick, whom she worked for as an editor and who’s no stranger to Austin. (His films “Tree of Life” and “Song to Song” were shot there.) “Something that I took away from him is that you don’t have to know everything or how it’s going to work,” she said. “You can trust that you chose to film a certain thing for a reason, and it’s probably something thematic.” Propper noted that, especially in her editing, a willingness to be open to the unexpected was vital in achieving the film’s ineffable quality. And “Birds” is lush with these instinctive, unscripted instances: a girl giggles the words “I hate you” with so much affection to the boy that she likes; another girl on a scooter rides over an unforeseen bump, her mouth and eyes turning into perfect “O”s; and, yes, the sizzling and the hissing, of sun hitting earth, sometimes melts in with the score, the sounds of birds, and even declarations of pure joy.
The film, in its tendency to embrace the unanticipated, reflects the wide-eyed sublimity in facing the unknown that is also inherent to being a teen-ager. To be young and sticky and optimistic for the upcoming school year, or to discover that the person you like-like like-likes you back, or even to watch the sun, a more-than-mild-inconvenience earlier in the day, finally set over a lake, glorious, transcendent—there’s nothing in this world like it.