The slightly pimply faced kids who were the stars of the Sundance film "Toy's House" put me back into a time, so many years ago that I can hardly add them. A time when I was that young and scared and sure of myself and clear-skinned and funny-looking and wanting to challenge all authority and was mostly too polite to do so. Comparisons will be made to "Lord of the Flies," albeit painted with a whimsical brush, and "Stand By Me" and other amusing yet poignant films, but this film had such a smart edginess to it, probably it had to wait until this moment in time to be made. The cast is stellar, filled with stand-up comedians who apparently did a fair amount of improvising on the spot.
Most of us have a story of either actually running away from home or just wanting to. Of thinking our parents were geeky, un-evolved, mean and repulsive. Of envying all the other kids' parents, whose most redeeming factor was they were not ours. Running away to a place of our own careful making without any conventional rules and invoking a code of our own clear reasons.
I saw this film at the end of a week of student-outreach opportunities where high school students watched snippets of films in reel time during the Sundance Film Festival and listened to directors/writers/principals talk about journeys into making film. And those Park City High School (and middle school) students asked such thoughtful, respectful questions, it was a delight to see their curious, introspective brains and hearts on display.
In a short film titled "Boneshaker," a young displaced African girl is either possessed by an evil spirit or perhaps has ADHD. She and her sister have traveled in an old car on a dirt road by a body of water in Louisiana and her father and mother (or maybe grandmother) are looking for a tent church where they hope to find a healer. The short features Quvenzhané Wallis, the star of last year's festival award-winner, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and both she and that film are nominated for Oscars this year.
One student, I believe a middle-school student, asked the director timidly if the film was autobiographical. And we heard from the young woman, a film student in New York, that yes, she had been born in Africa and lived in Hong Kong and Norway and struggled with a sense of home, as does the child in the film. And yes, her aunt took her to churches as a child to try to have the evil spirits removed from her. Another student asked if that scared her. And she confessed that it did. Greatly. And, as she talked about searching for a sense of place and questioning what it means to your soul to know where home and the heart lie, you could see the immigrant students in the audience nodding.
She talked to them about the filming in a few short days in Louisiana and warmth of the people there and the non-actors who made up the majority of her cast. She told them the cost of making her short ($17,000) and she talked about light and camera angles and having to do one scene in just two takes because the wet dresses couldn't hold up for any more.
The students were respectful and thoughtful, as they had been all week with other films. They struggled to understand, for example, why pharmaceutical companies won't just sell AIDS drugs at their real cost, just pennies, instead of as much as $40 a pill, to the people in Third World countries who are dying by the millions without them. They watched an animated short about a feral child and they wanted to understand about the film techniques, but also about the director's choice not to show eyes on the humans but rather on the animals in the film.
Later in the week, when I watched, in the full-length dramatic competition film, "Toy's House," the raw emotions of being a 15-year-old (boy), in that zone when he first learns the freedom of riding his bike long distances and finding hidden spaces in treed lands along creek beds, on the edges of town, I admired how the director had so carefully crafted that tiny window of time when you felt so powerful and powerless, simultaneously. I remember that heady freedom where you created a room, maybe in the middle of trees, where you took a favorite book or talisman and hid it there. I remember wanting/needing to escape my oppressive home life and innately knowing nature was the only true answer.
And at the end of the week of being with students and hearing their thoughtful questions and looking at their graceful/awkward bodies, I wondered what secret dreams they had of escape. Are there still enough wild places to create secret hideaways. Is there space enough in their structured lives to stretch from norms and be a bit feral themselves?
Here's what I am certain of: We are all the richer for the vacation that comes to us each January. The opportunity to experience, through film, lives we have never/always imagined. And to redefine what home means any day and in many places, including this very Sunday, in the Park...
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.