Sam loves film. I mean, he really loves film. He loves to share the story of how his mother went into labor while in a screening of The Godfather: Part III, which I think is the kind of story that every true film lover should have.
The more you listen to Sam speak, the more you realize that film, and the writing that comes from it for him, has been a tremendous healer in his life through the joys and the sorrows, the challenges and the triumphs, and the grief and the moving on.
I thought about Sam a lot while watching a couple of short films sent to me by Scenarios USA, a national non-profit organization that "uses media, education, & storytelling to support young people in controlling their own narratives & to support healthy decision making."
In introducing The Independent Critic to Scenarios USA, producer Rob York shared that Scenarios USA asks young people to write about the issues that shape for their lives as part of the annual "What's the REAL DEAL?" writing contest. Winners of the contest are partnered with professional filmmakers and crew to turn their stories into high-quality short narrative films in their hometowns.
In this first short film, Cut in Half, contest winner Leen Shumman, age 17, is partnered with Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan, Boynton Beach Club) in telling the story of two sisters and their family as they experience and deal with the Leukemia diagnosis of Layla, the eldest sister, and her decisions about life and death.
It was, in all honesty, difficult if not impossible to be entirely objective while watching Cut in Half, one of multiple films created by Scenarios USA that is seen by millions each year and packaged into accompanying curriculums that teach, educate, engage and empower both children and adults with a focus on supporting young people in becoming engaged citizens and healthy individuals.
While such an effort is admirable, kudos must also be given for the care and packaging and, when it comes down to it, the production values of the films. By weaving together the voices of young people with gifted, and obviously generous, film industry professionals, Scenarios USA helps to ensure that these films are presenting the voices of these young people in a way that is respectful, dignified, entertaining and authentic. As a film, Cut in Half benefits greatly from the rich performances of an ensemble cast that clearly is engaged with the subject and aware of its emotional impact. These performances, especially those of Dea Julien and Ajna Jai, are devoid of the usual posturing often associated with material such as this and instead exists in this wonderful place of simply being alive in the story. It's remarkable to me, and perhaps a lesson to many, that a woman as talented as Seidelman would not only involve herself in such a project but would bring her A-game to it. Cut in Half is a simple yet beautifully realized short film that has continued to bounce around my heart and mind and I find myself reflecting upon its words and images even as I sit here writing this review. D.P. Miguel Ioann Littin Menz's lensing is warm and intimate, while Susan Block's production design contributes greatly to the film's successfully bringing to life Shumman's intelligent, heartfelt dialogue.
The second film sent to The Independent Critic by Scenarios USA was Split Persona, a film that, I must confess, absolutely blew me away. Written by Mayraleeh Nelson, age 17, and directed by Bradley Rust-Gray (Salt, The Exploding Girl), Split Persona tells the story of twin sisters Karrie (Alianna Reyes) and Jalissa Crespo (Arianna Reyes), who've always shared a close bond but a bond that begins to fray as their mother begins to experience a suicidal depression that fully engages one sister while alienating the other. As their mother worsens, the twins need each other more than ever - but is it too late?
As I suspect is often the case, the entire framework of Scenarios USA creates the inevitable experience of "I identify with this film more than the others." Indeed, as someone who has not only survived suicidal depression and lost others to it, I found myself immensely engaged with Mayraleeh Nelson's insightful yet emotionally honest dialogue and the remarkably authentic performances served up by Arianna and Alianna Reyes along with Kenley and Kelsey Lewis as the younger Crespo sisters.
Split Persona is a rather remarkable short film. It's emotionally honest yet avoidant of unnecessary traumatizing, an intelligent exploration of a difficult subject that delves deeply without ever exploiting its subject. Bradley Rust-Gray, as did Seidelman, has brought his A-game into this project and has helped give voice to Nelson's dialogue and, I suspect, many other youths who will identify deeply with this beautifully manifested project.
Guy Godfree's lensing on Split Persona is practically a character unto itself, a constantly present shadow that magnificently brings to life the thoughts and feelings of these twins as they deal with their mother and with each other.
For more information on Scenarios USA, these two films and the other films offered via their program and other channels, visit the Scenarios USA website linked to in the credits to the left of this review.
CRITIC'S NOTE: As I was sending the link to the folks at Scenarios USA, I learned that the organization was pausing operations due to financial challenges. I can only hope that such concerns are temporary as these are marvelous voices that deserve to be heard. I will post more information as it is made available to me.