A young couple sits nervously on one side of a booth in a café as they anticipate the arrival of a third guest. She colors on her placemat while he assures her that everything will be all right. When a young girl takes her place across from this couple, we are as surprised as they are when it comes to her seriousness. In Mike Doxford’s charming and emotionally astute short film, Non-Negotiable, an only child plans to make her voice heard as this collective family anticipates baby number two.
At the beginning of our conversation, Doxford and I recognized how children are oftentimes not taken seriously when it comes to their feelings. As a kid, you have to go along with whatever you parents tell you, and those big, life-altering events carry a huge weight of inevitability. Kids stress out about things they cannot change.
“I was quite outspoken as a kid with all of my siblings being older than me–that can help you to grow up quicker,” Doxford says. “There’s a few things at play that I was aiming for. I wanted to try my best to put my audience in the mindset of a young person. We’ve all seen young, precocious characters, but I wanted it to have a true youthfulness to it even though she was speaking as an adult. I wanted it to reflect the fears that a lot of children have when another sibling comes along. Kid don’t have any control when it comes to major decisions for a family. It’s always believed that the parents are right, but I wanted to take a moment to shine a light on how the children feel, particularly with a new child on the way. I haven’t seen that depicted very much. The power struggle with parents and children really fascinates me, and it’s different with every family. In order for it to ring true, the dynamics were very important to me. I wanted to be able to spin around it to get every perspective. It was also important to me to capture that feeling of growing up and beginning to look at your parents in a different way. You kind of don’t see them as these overarching figures that know everything and, maybe, they have flaws too.”
Even before negotiations take place, we get a sense of the different relationships between these characters. Mom and dad act differently together than, say, father and daughter would. Doxford does an amazing job of establishing these bonds with little dialogue and by small gestures. If we, as the audience, didn’t take this young girl’s feelings into account, the whole film wouldn’t work.
“The opening is very deliberate,” he admits. “I wanted to tee it up to be very, very serious, and to make sure that it had stakes. I didn’t wanted it to to be just a funny skit, but I wanted it to carry some weight. At the start, the mom is drawing while her husband is trying to calm her down–she’s played this through her head a thousand time. When you first meet the daughter, she’s very business-like, and, when people are nervous, they can rush their words or flustered. She’s not. That helps with that dynamic with the power struggle.”
There is an almost Succession-like authority that Izabella Dziewanska brings to the role of the worried daughter. As she rattles off her list of demands, she is unshakable. I often joke that some kid actors, in their efforts to be authentic, come across as true tykes of the industry. Here, however, Dzieswanska channels an uncanny ability to be forthright but also vulnerable.
“I had this vision of the character that I wanted, and that vision was quite nuanced,” Doxford says. “I didn’t think it was possible, to be honest. Izabella [Dziewanska] fell into our laps, and she has this gravitas but also that belief that everything in her head makes sense. She’s thought this through and came into this diner as if it was a board room. It’s a very considered approach, but let’s not forget that she’s a young person. There’s that naivete there. Izabella just managed to bring that to the table. We did a day of rehearsal and had some Zooms beforehand. She was nine years old when we filmed it, so there were things that she did understand and some things that she didn’t. It was about talking it through into a language that she understood without overcooking it. Izabella really is such a sweet girl, but she brought some of those raw textures that I was looking for. We see this type of precocious character but they can be annoying if it’s relentless. With this character, there is a purpose to her. We got very lucky with Izabella and allowing her to run with it.”
When the truth comes out (Dziewanska has a particularly heartbreaking line that I shall not spoil), mother and father comfort her with a surprisingly large amount of truth. There is a respect between parent and child that we don’t often see with a daughter this young, but that level of honesty is what sets Non-Negotiable apart from other films. The truth is there not to scold but to enhance and strengthen the bond. The family will be getting bigger, so the truths should too.
“That’s the key bit to the film,” he says. “If that doesn’t work, none of it does. For Izabella’s line, I wanted it to to come out of the blue. There’s a little bit of murmuring before she says it, but, to me, it feels more random. That’s what kids do–they suddenly say what’s on their mind. Jill [Winternitz]’s character has to be a tough parent even if it’s against her instincts. She could play it down, but playing it with higher stakes makes letter her guard down more rewarding. Jill and I talked about that softening, so it felt like she was leveling with her daughter. Jill and Samuel [Anderson] are so brilliant with their approach. You write films to not be too on the nose, but what Jill’s character is saying is rather up-front like that. I wanted this film to capture the moment, in every family, where a spark of honesty happens. I don’t think this mother has opened up that much until this moment.”