Brittani Minnieweather McElveen ~ The Interview

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Brittani Minnieweather McElveen. Her name stirs up the rhythm of a hip hop dance step, and a sense of distinction travels through its sound. Indeed, Brittani or “Britt” as she is called affectionately, is movingmovingmoving to the beat of her own drum—a beat that has led her from the basketball court to the center stage of the theatre.

It’s a curious progression for two reasons. First, Brittani enjoyed the thrill of the game of basketball for eight years. As an athlete, she learned strategy and how to be a team player. Curious also because as did I, Brittani comes from the same über-supportive southern community in Columbia, South Carolina. Youth were expected to excel in the vocational arts and/or go to college and, thereafter, expected to get the job with medical and dental insurance, one-week vacation (two after five years) – you know those tried and true benefits. Theatre and/or entertainment? Pshaw! No communal Elder anointed that occupation. Too unstable. Where are the benefits? Her mother, Sharon, even admitted, “All jokes aside, I was hoping she would see the light and go find a real job, and start building something of a future.”

These are tough sentiments but Brittani, with her mother’s support, managed her life stages well through discipline, focus, and training to step into her passion for theatre with a confidence grounded in her faith and, more important, love.

Want to know more about Brittani Minnieweather McElveen? Read The Interview.

What drew you to the game of basketball?

My height! Really, it all started when I was about nine years old. I played at the park, and my friends would tell me I should play basketball because of my height. So, in seventh grade, I tried out for and made the team. I played basketball year round from then until high school. When I played — from about when I was 10 years old to 18 —basketball was part of my identity as a person.

What do you like the most about the sport?

Whenever I watch a game, I always enjoy the competitive nature of it. I really appreciate how the players work as a team.The cheers, the applause, and just feeling the energy on the court … I think all of these tie into me being a team player. Plus, I see the game as a performance. Coaches push their team as a theatre director would teach me during rehearsal.

How did you grow into your own as an athlete?

As I developed on the court, I came to realize that I was a very good team player. I also felt comfortable in my own lane playing defense; I did not need to be the star because I matured into a good solid player—not a great one–but I honed my strength in the game. It worked out well.

Did you have any aspirations to play professional basketball?

No. I never thought I would play professional. By the time of my junior year in high school, I was through with basketball. In all honesty, I grew weary of it. We won some games; we lost a lot.

What were your plans after basketball?

I knew I was going to college; my mother made sure of it. I strategized how to earn a scholarship. In eighth grade, I took a couple of high school courses to get credit. Those advanced classes created in me the desire to be smart—to really go for the academics. I understood that a high GPA resulted in being in a certain percentage of your class. Also, at graduation, with a high GPA, I could wear a chord signaling academic excellence. I wanted all of those for me. So, I just did my work. I studied. My hard work paid off. I graduated from high school with a 4.1 GPA and earned a full scholarship at Wofford College [in Spartanburg, South Carolina].

Why Wofford College?

I applied to some out-of-state art schools but they offered no scholarships to cover tuition. I was happy to be accepted to Wofford because out of all of the schools I applied, Wofford stood out as one of the best schools in the southeast for academics.

Briefly sketch your first experiences/thoughts on being a college student.

I chose marketing because I wanted a practical major I believed could ensure employment after college. I have to admit, though, academics at Wofford were tough for me. I am a wiz at memorizing facts but writing papers were a challenge—it was very difficult for me my freshman year. In fact, I was put on probation and had to bring up my grades in order to keep my scholarship.

How did you turn that around?

I became good friends with Derek McElveen, a very studious guy whom I met during freshman orientation. He did not play around. We would meet and talk to each other about our dreams and goals—you know, the serious stuff. We helped each other to hone in on what we wanted to do. Sophomore year he started helping me with my papers; we studied and did homework together. College became a little easier for me because we were a focused pair.

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Brittani in Red Noses

At Wofford, you won the James R. Gross Award for Excellence in Theatre. When did theatre become your primary focus of study?

A professor by the name of Dr. Mark Ferguson, the director of Wofford Theatre, from whom I credit gaining a lot of my confidence, suggested that I double major in Theatre and Business. When I told Derek of my aspirations for acting, he encouraged me to go for them. I listened. At the end of my freshman year I joined the theatre department after audition. Needless to say, I enjoyed my time at Wofford after my freshman year. I am so fond of my junior and senior years because of my decision to change my major. My relationship with Derek was a plus. We have been married now for 5 years!

I’d rather be known as a great team player than to be known as the best one on the stage. The best one can always get a job but I want a lifetime of jobs.

You were very popular at Wofford so much that your peers voted you Homecoming Queen in 2010. What accounted for your popularity?

Well, not so much as ‘popular’ but more an acknowledgement of what I stood for. I participated in the Association for Multi-Cultural Students and Wofford Women of Color. I joined the gospel choir. I was one of twelve black young women in a class of 300. My classmates came to know me through my activist work in those groups I joined, and I joined them to address on-campus racism.

Talk more about your on-campus activism.

It was not activism in the sense of organizing protests, but activism in terms of being part of an ongoing dialogue about current issues students of color faced at Wofford. General Robert E. Lee’s portrait hangs high in a campus frat house. My freshman year, someone or a group of people hung a noose outside of a dorm. I lived in a residence hall managed by a resident assistant who is Jewish; someone painted a swastika in the hallway. Certain fraternities didn’t allow black people to come into their frat houses—stuff like that. I engaged these issues with my classmates.

What did Homecoming Queen mean for you?

I earned my crown from the student body. After my crowning, I took the crown off and thrust it at the student section. In the past, young women who belonged to a sorority or who were president of a thousand clubs won the homecoming crown. I was none of those; so my win was an important one because it signaled that the student body of Wofford voted for me. Also, being the only black young woman on the field … I represented women of color at Wofford! I cried. It meant so much to me.

When did you become interested in theatre?

It all goes back to middle school. In the eighth grade, I auditioned for and won entry into the theatre program in the Palmetto Center for the Arts, a program for gifted students. In ninth grade, I played Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie. I loved the theatre. I wanted it to be my focus at the time but had to put it to the side for sundry reasons.

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Brittani and Derek McElveen after being crowned Miss Homecoming at Wofford College 2010

Sports and Theatre carry equal weight in terms of discipline and focus for a middle/high schooler. How did you balance the two?

Well, the first year Annie ran into basketball season. I had to sit on the bench because I missed a couple of practices. After that, I worked theatre around basketball so neither one would interrupt the other. At the same time, I made sure that theatre and sports would not interfere with my studies.

What is it that you enjoy about performing?

I love the storytelling aspect. I find pleasure in moving people while I tell a story through a character who can inspire an audience as she sings and/or dances. I enjoy seeing the immediate reaction from the audience to what is being told onstage. I love the applause. Every aspect about theatre is powerful—very powerful.

How do you get into character?

I have a process. I research my character—even the play–then I determine who I’m basing the character off of. I give them mannerisms and a voice. Then I’ll conduct some research if it pertains to a show, especially a musical because musicals have to do with past performances and shows.

Is there a time when you don’t want to go onstage?

Of course. Just recently I was so tired and worn out during a performance. An actor can even get tired of doing the same show for weeks at a time—sometimes twice in one day.

Do you have a ritual or habit for taking care of your body or instrument?

Dance class is my go to for exercise; I’m trying to pick up yoga. I like to power walk on my days off. I make sure I get my rest—to not party so much. I go home.

A person aspiring for the arts does not have to go to college but I am a firm believer in education; it is vital. … Training teaches you the real world of this business.

The industry is rife with competition. How do you handle that aspect of it?

I try to go into any audition or rehearsal being very kind. I do not backstab. I do my best to not make anything negative so I have to check myself when I feel negative vibrations coming from a group or even in an audition. I don’t throw shade at other actors. I strongly believe good experiences and behaviors reap good relationships with theatres and other actors. My attitude towards my chosen profession is this: I’d rather be known as a great team player than to be known as the best one on the stage. The best one can always get a job but I want a lifetime of jobs.

Every actor has to deal with rejection no matter how talented or even well-connected she is. What are your strategies for managing rejection?

When I have what I believe to be a bad audition, I have to check myself. So one Monday, for example, I had submitted for an audition. I was sent all of this stuff having to do with the play; I felt overwhelmed because I had to find time to read it all even though I was performing and working. I didn’t get a callback and was not asked to read anything else. I was disappointed. That next day, though, I had to get it back together because I had another performance. I prayed the whole afternoon because I knew I had to keep pushing forward or I would not have been able to give my best to Tuesday night’s performance.

What keeps you motivated? Grounded?

My faith. In this field a good number of people do not believe in God but I want people to see me as a Christian. I want God’s light to shine through me and in my performances. I attend church and Bible study to strengthen my spiritual life. I listen to my gospel music; it encourages me. In life there are so many disappointments. I call on my faith and Christian principles when I experience those times.

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Brittani in ‘Thought’

What have you learned about the business of theatre?

It is the hardest of businesses because an audition and performance requires the actor to be so open and vulnerable. I am so sensitive – like super sensitive — so I have to take care of that part of myself.

Your job requires you to be there at certain hours. Does this pose a problem when it comes to auditions?

I have made so many sacrifices for my art because I had jobs that had nothing to do with my art. Now, any job I take needs to be one where personnel understands that I am a performer first and everything else second. Right now I work with other aspiring actors; so, when I have an audition, they can cover for me as can I for them.

Does your profession interfere with your marriage and vice versa?

No. Not at all. Derek and I uplifted each other during college, and we continue to do the same during this journey. I am so blessed to have him on my team. I have to say he is satisfied in his own career as a pharmacist so he’s not like ‘you’re not paying attention to me’. Some people assume that I just can do what I want to without responsibility because of Derek’s profession. That is so not true. I make sure to make my own contributions to our household; I work. After the death of my father, my mother raised me as a single parent. I witnessed her strong work ethic; I take after her. I am not one to depend on anyone to provide for me no matter the situation. We had planned to move to Atlanta after graduation because Derek had been admitted to Mercer University. Our plans changed after his early admission into the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. So, I worked in a bridal shop in Charleston while he finished up his studies. Derek and I desire for the both of us to achieve and to meet our goals.

In your opinion, is it necessary for one who aspires to work in the entertainment industry to have a formal degree in theatre? Should she enroll in a theatre program?

A person aspiring for the arts does not have to go to college but I am a firm believer in education; it is vital. It doesn’t necessarily have to be college but you need some kind of training in the field. Training teaches you the real world of this business. There is a time commitment and a way to think about your participation in theatre. Then, an aspiring artist must realize that Broadway or film may not come as soon as s/he gets out there in the field; you may find you are practicing your craft in regional theatre or as a guest on television here and there.

You are forging a theatrical career in Atlanta and not Los Angeles or New York. Why?

We moved to Los Angeles for about a month and found out we are southern babies! We love the south. Atlanta always was on our radar. By the time we moved here, Atlanta had grown into a vibrant artistic hub for theatre and film. The Alliance Theatre originated The Color Purple, and Bring It On went to Broadway. Other theatres stepped up their game.

It has been the last few years that I understand. She is an artist; this is her passion. I have to support her. I do.

~ Sharon Dreher Minnieweather, mother

What advice would you give to someone who wants to venture into a career in theatre?

Well, I look to Taraji P. Henson as a role model … as a light … She got started in the late 1990s and had her break out role in 2001 in the film Baby Boy at the age of 31. If you keep at it and you keep trying it will come to you. Stick with it. Go through the ups and downs. My advice goes for anyone at any age who wants to venture into this territory. You have to really want it because it is not a pretty business. It has more downs than up so have to really want to do it.

What is the first step?

Your first step is to go to the audition of a show you don’t really know that well but have a character where you think you can relate. The second step is to take classes and learn all you can about your craft.

 How are you feeling now … right now?

Well today I feel good because I had a good audition and I had so much going on. I had workshop of new play and web series. I feel good and accomplished next week might be different but today, right now, is a good day.

 Brittani lives in Atlanta with her husband Derek. She is currently in rehearsals for play Little Shop of Horrors with Actor’s Express to open July 15. She just wrapped Thought, a film short about a woman who becomes disillusioned after the 2016 presidential election. Thought is directed by Alfred Robbins of Bottom of the Net Filmworks. Brittani also wrote Sundays at 4, a play about the dynamics of Sunday dinner with her family after church.

 

A Quiet Passion @ The Ross

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Cynthia Nixon as poet Emily Dickinson

Miss Emily Dickinson composed almost 2000 poems from her room with a view of Amherst, Massachusetts. Her mother, Mrs. Emily Norcross Dickinson, inspired in her a love for gardening, and Miss Emily, along with her sister Lavinia, tended a host of plants in the conservatory her father Edward had built on the Homestead. She avidly read newspapers and periodicals; she waited with anticipation for the newest publications of poetry and fiction. Her favorite women writers were, among others, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontës, and the writings by her best friend Helen Hunt Jackson. The poems she wrote she enfolded into letters written to relatives and friends along with pressed flowers from her garden. As for her health, she experienced visual difficulties that required two six month trips to see Henry V. Williams a well-respected ophthalmic surgeon and Harvard professor. It is believed by some scholars her eye problems accounted for her desire to stay home until her death in 1886.

 

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Emily Dickinson and her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle)

None of these activities, however, are dramatized in A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’s bio-pic on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson. Played with exquisite self-possession by Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame, Davies imagines Miss Emily as a woman encased within the boundaries of the Dickinson family Homestead—a kind of self-inflicted imprisonment. Keith Carradine plays her father Edward who grants Emily’s request to write at night. From that moment on, Emily wrote her poetry between the hours of 3 a.m. and noon, times she believed the world itself was still and silent.

In A Quiet Passion, Emily eventually avoided the social life of Amherst—that of picnics, church socials, weddings and funerals, among other social activities; instead, the poet turned to a solitary reclusive existence. She enjoyed the company of her family, and, on occasion, witty exchange of banter with her friend Vryling Buffam, played with uncompromising joie de vivre by Catherine Bailey. The bio-pic, however, fails to portray Emily’s joy for nature nor is there an impression of any pleasure emanating from Emily’s writing of her poetry nor a portrayal of her excitement over receiving the latest news.

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Catherine Bailey, Emily’s best friend played by Vryling Buffam

Nixon, nevertheless, brings forth the strength of Emily’s independent spirit as well as her drive to nurture her own sense of self.

She doesn’t unravel Miss Emily; rather, Nixon delivers with a quiet passion how the poet navigates the socio-cultural restrictions of women living in the nineteenth century in the United States. Carradine interprets Mr. Dickinson as a father who didn’t see his daughter coming. Always a bit surprised by his daughter’s display of her intellect but, underneath, Carradine’s Mr. Dickinson curries a sliver of pride for his daughter’s courage. And Jennifer Ehle is delightful as Emily’s constant and loyal sister Lavinia.

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A Quiet Passion plays through Sunday, June 4 at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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My Life as a Zucchini @ The Ross

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“No one is coming to your rescue!” an acquaintance said to me once in a strident tone. This, after a personal lament over a situation that I believed held me under a spell. Needless to say, over time that acquaintance and I have uhm … ahem … lost touch, but if we still were in contact, I would gift her with Claude Barras’s film My Life as a Zucchini as soon as it was available on DVD or to stream. I’d scribble a note: Dear Acquaintance, View & Weep! There are those who do come to our rescue!”

Based on the young adult novel by Gilles Paris, My Life as a Zucchini is filmed in stop-motion animation. It is a darling of a film, and Barris breathes life into the poignant stories of round-headed owl-eyed orphaned children living in a group home.

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Raymond visits Zucchini

The main character 9-year-old Icare voiced by Erick Abbate, is called Zucchini by his mother. She deals with the abandonment of Zucchini’s father by drinking beer and watching television day in and day out. Zucchini busies himself in the attic building towers with his mother’s beer cans. One day in a drunken rage, his mother climbs the stairs to give the boy the spanking of his life after she hears noises. Then. The accident. Raymond, voiced by Nick Offerman, is a compassionate policeman who processes Icare into the foster care system.

Zucchini’s answers to Raymond’s questions uncover a boy who, in spite of his circumstances, still finds a kernel of something happy. Even though her broken family has depressed his mother, Icare loves her mashed potatoes. Sometimes, he reveals, they even have fun.

Puppeteer Gregory Beaussart and his crew have fashioned a most adorable ensemble of kids, and Barras allows them to grieve, smile & laugh, question, and even fall in love.

We all have heard horror stories about the foster care system but My Life as a Zucchini makes plain that in spite of personal trauma and no matter the chaos, some adults keep their promises; some adults really care; some friends keep watch over us; and, if we find ourselves dangling over the pit of despair, some friends will even come to our rescue.

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My Life as a Zucchini plays through March 30th at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Also playing through April 6 at the Ross is A Sense of an Ending, Ruh-tesch Batra’s film about reconnecting with a lost love.

Toni Erdmann @ The Ross

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Meet Toni Erdmann (Peter Simonischek)

The lengths a father will go just to spend time with his daughter are explored in German director Mauren Ade’s film Toni Erdmann. The title of the film is not about a person by the name of Toni Erdmann and all of her or his adventures. Toni Erdmann is an alias. Winfried Conradi, a music teacher with no students, assumes the personality Toni Erdmann with the sole purpose of crashing in on the world of his daughter, Ines. After the death of his dog, Winfried, played by Peter Simonischek, longs to be more present in his daughter’s life. So, he shows up unannounced at her home in Bucharest.

Ines, played by Sandra Hahlur, has no patience for nor the inclination to grant her father’s wishes. She is a young strategist who successfully has climbed the corporate ladder; of course she is busy—always taking calls, going to meetings, giving presentations – sigh – to her father’s disappointment. What is worse she complains to her friends during lunch about how her father’s visit made for the worst weekend. So Winfried, feeling unwelcomed and unappreciated, packs up and returns home–or so Ines thinks.

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Toni Erdmann in costume

As soon as Ines turns around in a restaurant in the company of her girlfriends or looks around on the rooftop talking to her superior or at her naked-only birthday party, there he is – Toni Erdmann, bumbling around as an ex-con, a style consultant, or a German Ambassador made up with buck teeth and a shabby wig or in a bizarre costume that would scare bigfoot back to its cave. Where will Toni Erdmann appear next?

Peter Simonischek brings Toni Erdmann to a kind of crazy loopy peculiar life, and you can’t get mad at him. Every person in Ines’s life takes to him. Simonischek deftly manages his unpredictable character, and you can’t help but give over your heart to him. In fact, he is a kind of insufferable huggable lovable poppa.

When you see the film Toni Erdmann, be sure to pack a lunch or dinner; it is a long movie—almost 3 hours. And don’t count on a music score to guide your feelings—no—no violins or drum rolls here. Peter Orth, the cinematographer, lingers his camera on people; the camera outwears its welcome at parties and business meetings–even the goodbye between father and daughter is long in the tooth. Ade, however, refuses to pick up the cinematic pace; she makes you wait. The wait is well worth it.

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Erdmann with daughter, Ines

Winfried’s own reflection to his daughter on life uncovers the bright and shining gem in Toni Erdmann. What is worth living in life? Ines asked her father during one of his personality performances. In the backyard of his late mother’s house, father, without costume and daughter with no cellphone come together and alone and without distractions. Winfried finally gets the chance to answer her question. He begins, “The problem is it’s so much about getting things done … you do this or that but in the meanwhile life is just passing by. How are we supposed to The Ross logohang on to moments?  Now I just sit sometimes and remember how you learned to ride your bike. … but you only realize that afterwards … in the moment itself … it’s not possible.”

Toni Erdmann in German with English subtitles.

Jackie @ The Ross

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Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy

Funny thing about death. When it calls for a loved one be it human or pet, grief accompanies the grim reaper. You choose the casket and write the obituary and plan the services and decide on the outfit for the deceased. Everyone acquainted with the family offers their sincerest condolences at the wake. Mailboxes are overstuffed with Hallmark cards or … in today’s technological saturated world, ‘Likes’ and ‘Hearts’, and ‘Teary Man’ are checked on your Facebook page. Then. [sigh] It is all over as the last mound of earth slides from the shovel.

Let me rewind to the planning of funeral services for it is the kernel of Pablo Larrain’s film Jackie, starring Natalie Portman. There is so much to say and feel about the iconic Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. She allowed the world to mourn with her as she exhibited poise during the funeral procession of her slain husband, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1963.

But have you ever wondered, exactly, what went into the fashioning of President Kennedy’s funeral? Was there any resistance to Mrs. Kennedy from the white house? If so, how did she handle it?

 

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Jackie with her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard)

Let me rewind again: Have you ever thought about the atmosphere aboard Air Force One when Lyndon Johnson is sworn in as the 36th President of the United States as Mrs Johnson and Mrs Kennedy stand-by? Moreover, aside from shock and dismay, how do the people aboard Air Force One and, later, those within the White House react to and interact with Mrs. Kennedy after the national tragedy? Does the new widow keep it together? More to the point, how does the transition take place when the Johnsons move into the White House as Mrs. Kennedy still moves about the national home planning and packing and tending to her children John John and Caroline? Pablo Larrain superbly interprets these intimate occurrences. I have studied Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy right down to the style of shoes and the brand of stockings she wore, and I can tell you this movie gets her. It is obvious – maybe too obvious — that Portman studied each jot and tittle of Mrs. Kennedy’s voice and mannerisms. At times, though, I grew weary of her feathered ‘R’s and the open ‘A’s, spoken like ‘Ah’ in her well-known breathy voice.

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Jackie with Pablo Casal (Roland Pidoux)

Larrain remarkably imagines the Kennedy-Johnson transition as one of obvious discomfort and, surprisingly, irritation. Yes. irritation. In Jackie, Larrain plays up the tenuous situation between Mrs. Kennedy, the white house staff, and the Johnsons – the majority of these scenes shot in close and tight spaces. Some want to get on with matters of the state, as does President Johnson’s confidant, Jack Valenti, played by Max Casella. He has no patience for a discussion with the former first lady about her change of funeral plans. Others seem to … tolerate … the First Lady as does Lady Bird Johnson, played by Beth Grant. Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography and Mica Levi’s soundtrack pull together the necessary cinematic accents to amplify each prickly yet sensitive state of affair. Also, the behind the scenes details of private moments whereby public events meticulously are organized evoke sheer honor and respect for place and ceremony.

Yes. There is something about death and what it requires. Pablo Larrain’s Jackie dramatizes the necessity for its closure from the point of view of a former First Lady whose children, John John & Caroline, had to plan their mother’s memorial upon her death in 1994.

 

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Jackie plays through January 26th at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Also playing at The Ross through January 12 is the French film Things to Come.

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The Eagle Huntress @ The Ross

 

Screen Shot 2017-01-20 at 1.59.42 PM.pngWhen have you defied tradition against all odds to answer a fervent call to move into the unknown? When have you taken a leap into the abyss on a string of faith?

Documentary Filmmaker Otto Bell has made a breathtaking documentary called The Eagle Huntress. In this film, Bell focuses on a young girl named Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a 13-year-old Kazakh, who hails from generations of eagle hunters, a centuries old custom dominated by men. As she finds honor in her father’s own talents in capturing and training his eagle, she aspires to take a leap into the culture. If she is successful, she will become the first eagle huntress in her family’s 12 generations; and second in the modern history of Kazakhstan.

The Eagle Huntress is brilliant, and Daisy Ridley wonderfully introduces the true story of a young girl’s discipline and perseverance. Simon Niblett’s cinematography captures some of the most breathtaking scenes of nature in Kazakhstan, a transcontinental area in central Asia; Bell, too, gives the audience intimate access to the socio-cultural objections made by the men in Aisholpan’s community:

“This is not good”, laments one eagle hunter.

“They don’t know how to properly approach the eagle”, says another.

“Anyway, she will have to get married at one point or another”, predicts another. …

… you know, the usual suspects of doubt and protest.

But when dad and granddad consult with each other and agree to allow Aisholpan to compete in the Golden Eagle competition, the young girl hits the ground running to learn every skill necessary to realize her dream—and here is where Niblett’s genius unfolds.

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Aisholpan with her father Rys observing her captured eagle

Aisholpan’s father, Rys, instructs his daughter on the process for developing trust between her and the eagle as he prepares her for the Golden Eagle Festival. Once trust is established, the avian learns to listen to her call. One of the most heart-felt scenes is Aisholpan conversations with her Eagle after she has fed it. They must compete the next day, and amidst its cries for more food, she cautions her ward, “You might not be able to fly if you eat too much”. It calms down. I could not help but to feel a bit melancholy, however, when the eagle protests its capture from its nest but all subsides as Aisholpan meticulously cares for it.

Visions of courage abound as Bell makes sure to translate Aisholpan’s training into an adventure of reverence to a time honored tradition. You will absorb the grandeur of Aisholpan on horseback riding proudly with her eagle holding strong on her arm in the company of men.

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As I close my review, I leave you with the words of Aisholpan’s mother: “She decided on her own to become an Eagle Hunter; and I believe it is a woman’s right to choose.”

The Eagle Huntress comes back February 3 at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

 

 

Booker T. Mattison ~ The Interview

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Booker T. Mattison. Filmmaker. Novelist. Screenwriter. Professor. Want to know more about Mattison? Read The Interview.

TDR:    Who named you “Booker T.” and why?

BM:     My father’s best friend is named Booker T., and dad and his friends called him “BT”. They were very close. BT was killed in a car wreck; so, when I was born, he and mom gave me the name to honor his memory.

TDR:    Your parents are from South Carolina. You spent summers there. A summer’s vacation with southern relatives is a common right-of-passage for many African American children. What were your summer experiences like in contrast to living in the big city?

I am a hyper-sensory person, so I am really plugged into how things feel, taste, and smell.

BM:     Actually being on the family land in Williamston—which is considered “the country”—well, my grandfather owned a huge amount of land there. I know the history of the people to whom he sold the land … just knowing that the entire area was all owned by my grandfather—just knowing my history and having a street named for the Mattison family name gave me an incredible sense of self. The people who came before me did incredible things—even my family. It is an awesome feeling.

TDR:    Your writerly voice is impressive. Let me read the opening lines from your novels, published by Revell in 2009 and 2011 respectively.

Unsigned Hype:

Somebody’s banging on my front door and it’s rocking the house harder than the beat I’m laying down in my bedroom.

 Now, from your novel Snitch:

It’s cold tonight. So cold that if you listen hard enough, you can hear the ice that’s wedged in the cracks in the street expand and make greater fissures.

These are very visual openings. They sound. They move.

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BM:     I’m a hyper-sensory person, so I am really plugged into how things feel, taste, and smell. It gives life to my voice as an artist. You mentioned “hearing” sound in those lines, well sound is so important in how I describe experiences. While at Tisch [School of the Arts], I lived in the metropolis of New York, so I listened and watched how the city functions in the seasons.

TDR:    What contributed to your hyper-sensory perception?

BM:     It comes from being an artist and wanting to communicate with the world in any way that I can. Most of the artists I know are in tune with the senses and what is going on around them. We are aware of the affect our experiences have/had on us.

TDR:    How do you move into telling your story on the white page? What does literature do for you as a storyteller?

BM:     The dilemma of the blank page is terrifying. I do not enjoy writing—the process to get to a draft is not pleasant. This is a recent development for me that happened last spring in a creative writing class. I learned in that class, however, that it does not matter what you write, you can’t even make it great until you write it first; it doesn’t matter if it is bad … horrible.

Directing is probably … the easiest for me to do because as a director, it enables me to traffic in all of my gifts …

TDR:    As a creative writer myself, I’d like to know how do you manage the writer’s fear as you move to write on the white page?

BM:     Literature for me is fuel—knowing that when I write a product from my efforts will emerge. Really, writers have to remove the critical brain because it has no place until there is something on the white page to criticize. The rewriting … the editing … these are where and when the gems appear.

TDR:    When did stories matter to you?

BM:     I’ve always had stories in my head and worlds I wanted to shape, mold, and create. I wrote a novel when I was 9 but I did not realize it. I had characters but it was only later I was able to articulate exactly what I was doing.

TDR:    You are a novelist as well as a screenwriter as well as a filmmaker — three different media. Discuss the challenges you meet when approaching each genre. You’ve touched upon literature in the last question. Let’s continue with screenwriting …

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BM:     The goal is the same for all genres: to tell a story. The novel is a complete art form. I write, edit, and publish—there it is … it is complete–done. Notice I said “I write” because in the strictest sense it is not collaborative until you interact with an editor. As for screenwriting, it is the blueprint for the film … it’s collaborative … a team usually is involved to get that story on the screen. The story will move and morph in very different ways. Personally, it is far more difficult writing for screen than writing a novel because it is the form of writing that I have done for the least amount of time. As I keep writing screenplays, however, I am finding that I am getting better at it.

TDR:    Film …

BM:     It’s incredible to create and watch a film I have made. Directing is probably out of the three — author/screenwriter/director — the easiest for me to do because as a director, it enables me to traffic in all of my gifts: storytelling, visual, creating characters and worlds, and it gives me tools that I do not have when writing a novel or screenplay …

TDR:    Specifically, what tools?

BM:     If I want to show intimacy or a tense situation, I can use the film form called the close-up. If I want to give the audience a full range of the environment wherein my story takes place, I can pull my camera back and show depth of field which gives the expanse of a setting. I can use lighting, color, and other visual effects to enhance the images onscreen. And sound … sound is fifty percent of the movie. I can use sound to horrify and to excite; to augment and intensify the sense of sight. In other words, I can direct the audience’s emotions through sound … Being able to capture tone, mood … it’s amazing!

My work encourages and uplifts by examining dark and disturbing aspects of who we are but providing triumphant and uplifting endings that builds people up … that offers hope at the end of the day.

TDR:    The Gilded Six Bits is a short story written by Harlem Renaissance novelist Zora Neale Hurston in 1933. In 2001, you produced a film short of the same name. What drew you to Hurston?

 BM:     An African American lit course at Norfolk State; it is a rare love story from the Harlem Renaissance. I found it refreshing to read something that wasn’t dealing exclusively with racism. Had she done what all of the other Harlem Renaissance writers were doing, a degree of her uniqueness would have been lost …

TDR:    In your opinion, what made Hurston stand apart from her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries or contributed to her “degree of uniqueness” you have mentioned?

BM:     The Gilded Six Bits is a love story set in the 1930s. Typically literature from that period … the focus is on the struggle against racism and oppression in the United States; but that was not Hurston’s voice. She tells us that racism was not the only concern among African American people. Hurston was very interested in the day-to-day life of African Americans—how they lived and interacted with each other. The story, in particular, has an emphasis on the relationship between a young married African American couple living in the south. She specifically focuses on how one couple would enact forgiveness after a betrayal.

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Joe (Chad Coleman) and Missy Mae (T’Keyah Crystal Keyman) in The Gilded Six Bits

TDR:    … and what had to be forgiven … who could do it …

BM:    Exactly. Hurston takes on the power of forgiveness. People told me post-screening that a whole lot of midwives saved a whole lot of marriages. It’s Zora’s genius, really. I went back and forth through the story with calendars to figure out who fathered that baby but I realized Hurston regards love and family to be more important than betrayal.

TDR:    Were you guarded in your interpretation of the story for the screen?

BM:    I did not want to offend her fans! I plaid close attention to Zora’s voice as I read her. I wanted to “hear” her voice on the screen. At the film’s screening, I was holding my breath. Judging from the audience’s reactions, I gathered that I was true to her vision of the story and the message she wanted the audiences to take away from it.

… it doesn’t matter where you go to film school just learn the business. Learn the craft. Learn the culture–that’s equally important.

TDR:    National Black Child Development Institute recognized Unsigned Hype. To that recognition you stated, “I am called to uplift, encourage and challenge readers, but to do it in a way that is morally and ethically responsible. As a media professional, I am acutely aware of the power that media has to introduce and nurture ideas in the minds of young people. And it is these ideas that ultimately shape their worldview.” How do you see your work encouraging and uplifting your readers and viewers?

BM:     My work encourages and uplifts by examining dark and disturbing aspects of who we are but providing a triumphant and uplifting ending that builds people up … that offers up hope at the end of day …

TDR:    You earned an M.F.A. from the Tisch School of the Arts, after earning your Bachelor’s from Norfolk State University in Virginia. So you are credentialed in filmmaking. There are plenty filmmakers – successful filmmakers — who are making films without the formal college degree. How important do you deem formal education in the visual arts? Is it necessary?

BM:     No. it is not necessary. There are far too many people who are successful without the formal degree but it is helpful. Tisch has a conservatory environment, and I absolutely needed to be in a culture and setting that catered strictly to people who aspired to become filmmakers and/or already were working in the field. Formal education, I do believe, is beneficial but it is expensive! You can be so starry-eyed about a school but the financial debt has to be weighed in the decision. If you decide to go, it doesn’t matter where you go to film school just learn the business. Learn the craft. Learn the culture–that’s equally important.

Booker T. Mattison currently is Associate Professor of Film Studies at Hampton University in Virginia. For more information on Mattison visit http://www.bookertmattison.com.  

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Little Men @ The Ross

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Tony (Michael Cavelli) and Jake (Theo Taplitz)

One of the hardest things for parents to realize is that some decisions made by them can alter the exterior and, even more important, the interior lives of their children for a lifetime.

Some decisions can be altered given the circumstances; others cannot be helped no matter how many the twist and the turn.

Independent filmmaker Ira Sachs tackles the emotional turmoil of two families whose hearts are torn asunder because of one decision surrounding a piece of property: a brownstone in Brooklyn, New York. His film Little Men, starring Greg Kinnear, Paulina Garcia, and Jennifer Ehle, is a neatly packed drama focusing on the friendship between Jake Jardine and Tony Cavielli, played with remarkable emotional insight respectively by Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri. After the death of his grandfather, Jake’s parents Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move into a Brooklyn brownstone willed to them by Brian’s father. Living and working below them is Leonor Cavielli, Tony’s mother, an accomplished entrepreneur who utilizes the space as a sewing center and dress shop. Dire financial circumstances undercut the “new adventure” taken by family Jardine. Kathy has been supporting the family on her income as Brian pushes for a career in theater. To where does Kathy look to augment their income? Leonor’s dress shop.

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Brian and Leonor negotiate

While Leonor, Kathy, and Brian go back and forth through some very unpleasant negotiations, the middle schoolers Jake and Tony enjoy the city of Brooklyn and cast day dreams about their hopes and plans for the future. In just a few months, little does Jake know, the choices made by his parents will alter his friendship with Tony beyond repair. What is more, neither he nor Tony will have control no matter the demonstration to the Jardines the emotional impact on these little men.

Sachs is genius in the portrayal of male teenage angst. Within Jake’s and Tony’s innocence, Sachs intersperses a raw critique of the high cost of living in Brooklyn, New York. You know, adult stuff. Through Leonor the desperation to hold on to a home promised to her by the late Elder Jardine who failed to write her into his will is downright soul shattering. Paulina Garcia interprets Leonor’s economic anxiety—if not torment—with such honesty, and you will want to rescue her from these troubles and teach the Jardines a thing or two about compassion.

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Ryan Grovey ~ The Interview

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Ryan Grovey, MIXXEDFIT National Trainer (photo courtesy of Dee Bernal)

Ryan Grovey currently is a National Trainer for MIXXEDFIT, a popular group fitness program founded by Lori Chung out of her studio Dojo 3 in the greater Washington state area. Want to know more about Ryan Grovey? Read The Interview.

TDR: Ryan, you are living your passion as a National Trainer with MIXXEDFIT. You exude joy for the dance in each video and/or picture you post with trainees and the founder, Lori Chung. No one can miss your enthusiasm for what you do! Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk with me. Let us start with some insight into life before MIXXEDFIT. Tell us something about your parents.

RG: My mother, Patricia Yvonne Grovey, and my father Trenedy [“Trent”] Schavaz Grovey graduated from Oklahoma State. They moved to New Mexico after they married. My father, a petroleum engineer, found work in oil there. My mother stayed home for a while but she dreamed of working with children. She worked in banking but later she founded her own non-profit agency which includes four early childhood facilities that serve over 500 low-income children and their families as well.

TDR: What an impressive bio sketch of your parents; we will learn more about them later. For now, let’s move into a discussion of your passion for dance fitness.

As I danced during that demo with the MIXXEDFIT instructor, I was like OMG! This is what I need in my life! The door has opened. This is my new beginning!

RG: I’ll begin with school. In junior high I played basketball and football; I excelled in both. I knew early that academics were it, though. In 10th grade, something changed: I felt like I really wanted to do strictly academics.

TDR: What are “strictly academics”?

RG: I continued to play but I noticed I slowly was walking away from sports. I became involved in student council. I stopped playing sports altogether my senior year because I wanted to be all involved with my class. So, for instance, I was in charge of the senior prom. I worked closely with the principal. Still, I maintained a B average no matter how active I was.

TDR: You have a strong background in sports and academics yet no mention of being a dancer and even taking a dance fitness class during your high school years. When did dance fitness catch your attention?

RG: Well, my mother organized some fitness classes at her facility and I always participated in them with her. I would dance around the house. I wasn’t trained but I loved to dance! My friends would tell me all the time that I was a good dancer. I did teach a hip-hop class to young adults once but dance fitness or dance fitness as an industry … I just was not aware of an industry …

TDR: So, after high school …

RG: I enrolled in New Mexico State University. I don’t know why but during one of my trips home my mother suggested to me to take a Zumba fitness class already happening at her place of business. Let me pause for a moment to say something about my mother: She is my heart. If not for my mother, I would not be where I am today.

TDR: What a lovely homage to your mother …

RG: Thank you. She is my best friend! Well, I was home for Christmas, and I tried the Zumba classes at one of mom’s facilities. I absolutely fell in love with Zumba!

TDR: Zumba is your first intro to dance fitness after the Hip Hop class you taught?

RG: Yes. It was. I borrowed my mom’s Zumba DVD’s, and practiced the routines with my roommates when I returned to college after Christmas break. That summer, I took Zumba the whole time I was home. My mother noticed my moves. “You have a talent!” she said. She told me that I was super good, and encouraged me to become an instructor. I thought she was crazy! But she and I, along with two other staff members, registered for Zumba Instructor training held in Albuquerque. I received my certification June 2009 at the age of 19!

TDR: Did you start teaching right away after your certification in Zumba?

RG: Yes, but it was kind of sad because my father passed away in May 2009—a month before my Zumba certification. He really didn’t get to see my success! He sees it now, though!

TDR: Would he have supported this endeavor?

RG: Sure! Even though his thing was sports, my dad would have supported anything I was passionate about. He was a basketball and track star in high school in Duncan, Oklahoma. He was state champion in track and was all district in basketball and football. He enrolled me in sports camps, and he always encouraged me from the sidelines.

My goal is to change lives. For just one hour, I give my all to my students. You never know what is going on with anyone, and that’s why I teach to make a difference.

TDR: You were brought up by talented and focused parents who for certain inspired your own interests. Your mother is an entrepreneur; your father, was an athlete, an engineer, and an actor. Both parents were political activists—your mother still is politically aware. I am curious about what particular lessons you learned from them.

RG: My parents instilled in my sister and me an appreciation for discipline, practice, and hard work! My father said, “I want to make sure that you are successful”, and he did. My sister is an anesthesiologist. I opened my business at the age of 20. Mom and dad really invested in our futures and made sure to grow our confidence.

TDR: It’s your first class teaching as a Zumba instructor. How did that feel?

RG: I was so nervous!! My girlfriend was there. I was freaking out just from the nerves! That class was a success, though, and it gave me confidence to develop as an instructor and grow my business. I started expanding like crazy! I taught at a nutrition spot on a patio—pretty ghetto but I did it! I taught at all of the gyms in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I co-taught with a cheerleader from Hobbs High. I even taught it to my Kappa Sigma frats. As my reputation grew, people encouraged me to open my own studio, and I did! My grandfather and my mom supported me through everything.

TDR: How did you grow your business?

RG: Word of mouth! People felt I brought so much joy to my dancing; they loved my teaching style. My classes were packed. Before I knew it, I was in high demand in the city of Las Cruces. People told their friends! After a while, I wanted to be more than just a Zumba instructor; I wanted to go higher.

TDR: What is “higher” in the Zumba organization of instructors?

RG: The Zumba Jammer.* I applied in 2011 but I didn’t make it. Everyone was shocked. I was like ‘whatever’ because, really, I felt I needed to push harder. The second round 2013 I made it.

TDR: What contributed to your success the second time around?

RG: Well, it helped that the organization outlined exactly what they wanted to see in the audition. I was glad I made it because the training provided at the Zumba Jammer level helped me in my development as a dance fitness instructor.

TDR: You resigned as a Zumba Jammer in 2014, but in January 2015, you danced right into MIXXEDFIT. What drew you to this particular program?

RG: A Zumba instructor in one of my Jam sessions asked if I would host a MIXXEDFIT demo in Las Cruces. I made it happen. As I danced during that demo with the MIXXEDFIT instructor, I was like OMG! This is what I need in my life! The door has opened. This is my new beginning! I determined right then and there to host a MIXXEDFIT Instructor certification. I also determined that no one else but the CEO Lori Chung was going to do our certification. I personally contacted Lori, and after a lot of convincing she agreed to come.

MIXXEDFIT music uses only American Top 40 music and yesterday’s hits; we are not Asian-, Latin-, African-inspired … and our moves? Our moves are explosive! They are huge and powerful! These are the features of MIXXEDFIT that separate our program from all others.

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Ryan with MIXXED FIT founder and CEO Lori Chung

TDR: How does Lori Chung fuel your enthusiasm for MIXXEDFIT?

RG: She is people inspired! I appreciate her passion, commitment, and hard work for growing MIXXEDFIT. She personally invests in her instructors and her national trainers. She promotes our workshops through the MIXXEDFIT page. The personal development? Outstanding! Many group fitness programs do not offer this kind of attention to its instructors and trainers.

TDR: Your mother saw something in you and encouraged you to become a Zumba instructor. Lori saw something in you, and brought you on board as a MIXXEDFIT National Trainer. What affect does the belief your mother and Lori have on you?

RG: Their belief in me strengthened my own belief in myself. My mother … see … I watched the process she went through to own her early childcare business. Her determination … her discipline—all of her strength let me know I can do it too! As for Lori–Lori respected my talent. She asked me about my own vision … my own desires, and went about seeing how these could be brought about. My career as a dance fitness instructor started in MIXXEDFIT, and I know that was due to Lori personally seeing my performance, energy, and talent during the certification training. People would say to me always “Ryan you should be on those [Zumba Fitness] videos” but I never had that chance. I am in MIXXEDFIT training videos now.

TDR: Was the switch from Zumba to MIXXEDFIT a smooth one?

RG: I think so. Mom had all faith in me, yes, but she advised me to be cautious in my transition from being a Zumba Jammer to becoming a MIXXEDFIT National Trainer. She did see I had more opportunities with MIXXEDFIT that I did not have through Zumba but she understood the business side of things. Everything worked out nicely, really well.

TDR: MIXXEDFIT and Zumba are both dance fitness formats whereby the common denominator is choreographed dance. What are the particular differences?

RG: MIXXEDFIT music uses only American Top 40 music and yesterday’s hits; we are not Asian-, Latin-, African-inspired … and our moves? Our moves are explosive! They are huge and powerful! These are the features of MIXXEDFIT that separate our program from all others.

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TDR: How are you using MIXXEDFIT in the community:

RG: My goal is to change lives. For just one hour, I give my all to my students. You never know what is going on with anyone and that’s why I teach to make a difference.

TDR: What are some of your personal goals outside of MIXXEDFIT?

RG: Just to have enough of my own personal wealth where I can be free! I’m in no hurry. Eventually I will have a family with about like eight kids! My mom is like “I want a grandchild!”

But right now, I am living life to the fullest! I am living my dream … I am living Ryan!

To learn more about Ryan, visit him on Facebook and Instagram. For more information on MIXXEDFIT and its mission statement, how to become an instructor, to bring MIXXEDFIT to your city, local events, find a class, and to purchase MIXXEDFIT gear, visit http://www.mixxedfit.com. To meet the founder Lori Chung, visit www.mixxedfit.com/lori-chung.

*A Zumba Jammer (ZJ) … specializes in Zumba choreography and … provide[s] ZIN Members with new choreography routines to integrate into their Zumba classes. (Zumba.com)

 

Indignation @ The Ross

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Marcus (Logan Lessman) and Olivia (Sarah Gadon)

What is it about mom and dad? What is it about parents, period? They seem to know everything about the future in the present, don’t they?

We all have heard parental cautions, each one accentuated by a pointed finger or hands cupping your face: “Now you listen to your mother” or “You mark my words” or “I’m your father; I know what’s out there in that world, you don’t.” You would think that after having 18 or 20 years of life experience, parents at least could acknowledge your own awareness and understanding about life.

Rarely do parents assess themselves and conclude, “hey, I made it through all of the obstacles in life; I believe my child will too.” Ironic, isn’t it?

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Max Messner (Danny Burstein)

But for Max Messner, the Jewish father (Danny Burstein) in James Schamus’s film Indignation, one little mistake–one false move–can destroy a person’s life. These are the words of caution he delivers to his son Marcus (Logan Lerman) as he prepares for college during the time of the Korean War. Mr. Messner’s fear is fueled after attending funerals of his son’s friends and relatives who returned to the states in body bags after having fought in the war, and Mr. Messner knows the privilege of his son’s exemption from the draft as result of his acceptance into a conservative Midwestern college in Ohio; the future shines before him, and it is dazzling.

But one false move warns Mr. Messner …

As Marcus adjusts to Midwestern culture, he is exposed to the usual suspects of college life. In particular, members of the Jewish fraternity approach Marcus about membership; he does not wish to join much to the consternation of his parents.

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Mrs. Messner (Linda Emond) warns her son

Framed within the socio-cultural norms of the 1950s, Schamus brilliantly portrays the intense demands for compliance, if not, obedience to institutional rules and regulations and societal codes of conduct by the college student. In the process, Indignation dramatizes the heavy weight of self-determination that can implode as it enacts within such strictures; even romance and love are stifled within these constraints. Sarah Gadon plays Olivia Hutton, Marcus’s troubled love interest, and her liberal attitudes towards sex lands on no ground except that of the campus strumpet. Marcus does not care; but mother Messner, played by Linda Emond, does. She swoops down on The Ross logoMarcus as would an eagle to its prey to warn her son against marrying Olivia.

 

In the end, the movie boomerang’s the father’s major concern as Marcus’s fate pivots on one false innocent move, and this will leave you heartbroken. Sometimes, my father counseled me, you have to follow the rules even if you do not want to or suffer the consequences … if you get caught …

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