Shelf Life Film Review - Screening at the 2007 Broad Humor Film Festival


In the witty, independent film Shelf Life by Tamar Halpern, newly sober Nikki Reynolds (Betty Brandt) is given a book shelving position in a small library. And she is thrilled about it. Not! She is a leather-garbed, boot-wearing Goth who has to pee in a cup daily to stay out of jail.

Slacker Nikki Reynolds (Betsy Brandt) is trapped in the "Shelf Life"

She lives with her self-medicated, knitting-obsessed Mother (Holgie Forrester) who tries to be encouraging and supportive, but only succeeds in giving herself a bad dye job. Nikki’s Uncle Tommy (William Jones), a councilmen who is running for mayor, gets her the job and is milking his grand act of charity for every drop of campaign cred that it’s worth. Clearly, Nikki couldn’t be happier with her life. Again… Not!

Betty Bonhauser (Elisa Bocangera) really couldn’t be happier with her life. As the head librarian of the Annex branch for six months, she has everything exactly how she wants it, exactly how things in a library should be (having come from a long line of librarians). That is, until Nikki shows up, the drug abusing newbie that Betty herself did not even hire.

Eavesdropping is a Head Librarian's priviledge

At the first glance at Nikki, and the first word from Betty, it’s loathing at first sight. Betty does everything she can to get this anarchist out of her library. She has the main branch send over their security guard, Sergeant Knofelmacher (Bonnie J. Kirk) to watch Nikki, never mind that it was under false pretenses. She runs to the City Council pleading for someone to remove Nikki, only to realize she is lodging her complaint with the person that put her there (Uncle Tommy). No one seems to care that this Nikki person has “perverted the library into a place of fun” with her loud story times that permit children running amidst the stacks, rock music blaring.

All Library Business and no play for Betty Bonhauser (Elisa Bocangera) in "Shelf Life"

Stuck square in the middle of the two uber-femmes is Ronald (Joe Smith), a simple, sweet Assistant Librarian who teaches Nikki the ropes and jumps at every crack of Betty’s verbal whip. He’s friendly, conscientious and obedient, the perfect subordinate to the overbearing Betty. It is through Ronald’s eyes that Nikki slowly begins to see the fulfillment of being in public service by working in the library.

Then the unthinkable happens. Nikki is approached by two kids who ask her about getting the computers fixed. So when Nikki finds herself alone at the front counter, with the number at her fingertips, she takes the initiative to call. The next day when the repair guy arrives, Betty promptly sends him away; confirming for Nikki that she is indeed trapped in a police state that is run unchallenged and unchecked by the tyrannical head Librarian.

From that point on, Nikki undermines Betty’s authority effortlessly, simply by being herself. She has lost interest in being bad and in rebelling, despite how her old partner in crime, trust-fund baby Jarrett (Ryan Spahn), tries to woo her back to her old wicked ways. (He probably lost her at his third attempt to give her a hickey.) Nikki decides that she cares; she decides she likes this library stuff. And Ronald eagerly points out that she is in fact good at it.

Shelving books can be a drag

Shelf Life is a clever, smart and fairly twisted comedy that teaches an important lesson without being preachy. Everyone can change. Everyone deserves a second chance. Moreover, the only thing people need to change is exposure to new ideas and an opportunity. Ironically both women are doing just that, in their own ways. Betty truly believes she is protecting the sanctity of the library with every manipulation, lie and arbitrary rebuke she issues. Nikki, on the other hand, acts solely on her instincts of fairness and fun.

It’s quite a treat to watch these actresses spar and to see how each scheme backfires on Betty one by one. With the film taking place primarily in one location, the burden of keeping this film alive and interesting is on the performers and they accomplish that task with the greatest of ease. The script is tight, as is the comic timing in this piece. I particularly enjoyed Uncle Tommy’s story time at the library; it’s great fun to watch.

Shelf Life is a gem of a film written and directed by Tamar Halpern. I discovered the title through the Broad Humor Film Festival. Now in its second year, Broad Humor is the only festival specifically for comic works written and directed by women. One of four feature films screening at the festival August 24-26, Shelf Life is a great independent film with many laugh-out-loud moments and a few twists that will surprise you by the end. If the quality of comedy and filmmaking defines a film's expiration date, then Halpern’s film deserves a very long shelf life.

Shelf Life

Running Time: 93 mins.

Rating: PG-13

Saturday, August 25 at 3 pm
Electric Lodge Performing Arts Center                    
1416 Electric Ave., Venice CA

Tickets are $8.00 and can be purchased online at

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