The gifts parents give their children last a lifetime. It's a familiar trope, but one illustrated to poignant effect in a new six-minute animation from Google Spotlight Stories, the tech company's 360-degree film group.
Titled "Pearl," the unbranded video follows the life of young woman and her musician father, as she grows up, and he grows older. Set entirely in their hatchback, it opens on the car, sitting forgotten somewhere on the family property. The protagonist rediscovers it, along with an old tape recorder left inside. She punches the play button, and so begins the flashback to her years as a little girl, spent largely in the back seat.
Her dad, then young himself, punches the record button, and while cruising down the road, kicks off an upbeat folk tune that anchors the remainder of the clip. Titled "No Wrong Way Home," it follows them as they drive around, busking for money, and living out of their car.
It's a lifestyle that has its highs and lows—and eventually the father settles down, and makes way for Pearl to act like a teenager, moping around in the backseat, starting her own band, getting into trouble with the law for setting off bottle rockets in a parking lot garbage can with her friends. But all that time spent singing alongside her dad has paid off.
In the end, she finds success in her own musical career; taking the car out on tour; breaking down on the highway, and later reviving it, so she can drive her father to the big, glitzy concert she's playing. As he sits in the back seat, eyes filled with wonder, their roles are reversed—a nod to what he's sacrificed, to the circular nature of the parent-child relationship, and to the inevitability of the old giving way to the new.
It's a magnificent piece of storytelling, with a beautiful sentiment at its heart. There's no shortage of rich detail to catch on repeat viewing; with deft and frequent cuts among different eras and memories, it warrants the attention to subtle changes in props and scenery. That's served by the 360-degree—or virtual reality—technology that the clip is designed, at least in part, to promote.
But that is also, to some degree, extra eye candy—geek-fodder for the creative set; the story's focus remains, as it is should, clearly on the characters, throughout. The audience is, still in this case, voyeuristic—unlike in the sort of innovative first-person storytelling demonstrated, surprisingly enough, by Coors Light in its recent sports-adventure vignettes from 72andSunny.
Google's approach here may also slightly problematic, in a handful of more substantive ways. First, there's the depiction of the car as the girl and her father's "home" (as it's described on the video's YouTube page; one scene finds them celebrating Christmas in it; naturally, she gets a miniature guitar). In the degree to which that's a literal, rather than spiritual interpretation of the automobile's role, the story is romanticizing what's essentially hardship—living in a hatchback is no picnic, and while it is arguably a choice for the dad, it's less so for his daughter.
There's also a risk of tone-deafness on that topic, given the housing woes in the Bay Area, which has found low-income families—and even the occasional engineer—living out of their cars, a state of affairs fueled by the new tech boom, of which Google is a shining symbol.
And while themes of going, or being, "home" run throughout the music and the animation, there's also the question of what "home" means in a world that's implicitly—in what is, at its core, an ad for the company's experiments—careening towards a techno utopia of Google's making. Presumably, the dad eventually got a job writing code or selling ads, so his daughter could pursue her own dream.
And the image of young man taking his hands off the wheel while driving, so he can strum the guitar—or of letting his toddler bounce around between the front and back of the without a seatbelt—could just be a warm homage to a more carefree time, when such behaviors were commonplace, or it could be a subtle sales pitch for a future world, wherein, say, cars drive themselves, and nobody has to worry about getting into accidents, because the computers are just that good.
Those criticisms are, by and large, nitpicks, and in a sense highlight the the underlying tensions that help make the video feel less like advertising and more like art. Oscar-winning director Patrick Osborne (who won in the Best Animated Short Film category for his 2014 film Feast) had a fair amount of leeway in pitching the story, reports Fast Company—and a film that didn't take any risks, or deal with any difficult subjects, would be decidedly boring.
But the result is still a fairly happy-go-lucky, if at moments heart-tugging piece of propaganda. In fact, things turn out relatively well for the dad—at the end of Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree," upon which Google's story is loosely based, all that's left of the titular tree is a stump.