'Adventures in Public School' comes home
Every film represents the journey of an idea. A lot can change for a film between that first spark of an idea and its red carpet premiere.
Case in point: Adventures in Public School, the locally shot comedy from Vancouver filmmakers Kyle Rideout and Josh Epstein that stars Daniel Doheny as a brilliant but socially awkward home-schooled teen who craves a taste of high school life before he heads off to university, much to the chagrin of his over-protective mother (played by Hollywood’s most in-demand BFF, Judy Greer).
Rideout and Epstein had been working together on a theatre project in the Yukon when they began riffing on the idea of a comedy about homeschooling. Their initial idea had the family living in a cabin in the woods; the protagonist’s best friend would be either “a moose or a bear,” says Rideout in a recent phone interview.
Alas, it “all got cut and streamlined and he actually moved into the city,” Rideout continues, while Epstein chuckles on the line. “That was the origin of it. Maybe because we were thinking of it in the Yukon, maybe that’s where the bear came from.”
Adventures in Public School is their follow-up to 2015’s critically acclaimed Eadweard – a gripping, often lyrical feature film which starred Michael Eklund as the pioneering 19th century photographer (who, in addition to being the grandfather of motion picture technology, was the last American to ever be acquitted of murder on the grounds of justifiable homicide).
For their second feature, Rideout and Epstein were eager to create something tonally different from Eadweard. Something fun.
“’Fun’ was a word that Josh and I talked a lot about,” says Rideout. “We want the audience to have fun watching it.”
And create something fun they did – and not just fun, but, like Eadweard before it, critically acclaimed. Adventures in Public School – directed by Rideout, produced by Epstein, and written by them both – premiered at the venerable Toronto International Film Festival last fall before making its hometown debut as part of the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Next week, Adventures in Public School comes home again, this time as part of Canada’s Top Ten Festival. The touring festival is programmed by TIFF and showcases the Canadian feature-length films, short films, and student short films that TIFF considers to be the best of the previous year.
Here’s how VIFF described the film in advance of its initial hometown screenings: “Undeniably book-smart but completely uneducated in the ways of life, home-schooled teen Liam (Daniel Doheny) aspires to be the next Stephen Hawking even though casual conversation amounts to a social minefield for him. Then, while completing a high school equivalency exam that should be nothing more than a formality, he lays eyes on the alluring wooden leg of Anastasia (Siobhan Williams). Immediately smitten (to put it in PG terms) with the prettiest girl in public school, his only recourse appears to be a little self-sabotage that results in an extended stay in Grade 12 and indoctrination into the unwashed masses…. Occasionally resembling a gawkier, ganglier Andrew Garfield (in the most endearing of ways), Doheny concocts a spectacularly awkward chemistry with his helicopter mom Claire (Archer’s Judy Greer), resulting in an onslaught of hilariously inappropriate exchanges that would make Oedipus blush.”
Neither Rideout nor Epstein was homeschooled (“I was very public schooled,” notes Rideout. “I went to eight different schools”), but they interviewed former homeschoolers to make sure they got it right. While the film refrains from making any judgment calls, Rideout says “there are pros and cons for both [homeschooling and public education], and we make a case that Liam got a bit of a superior education but just might lack some social training.”
Homeschooling was more of a vehicle to explore a curious (if not completely messed up) relationship between a clinging parent and crowded child. “We were exploring how close is too close to be with a family member, and what kind of mayhem a family member can cause in your life,” says Epstein.
And because the heart of the film rests in that relationship between mother and son, the actors cast in those roles needed to be funny, endearing, quirky, and relatable. For the role of the mother, the filmmakers knew they had a ringer in Greer.
Rideout and Epstein readily admit to cheering when Greer (13 Going on 30; Arrested Development) confirmed that she was on board to play Claire. “We were set to do this Skype call, and she sent us this text saying, ‘Judy = Claire’ with dancing emojis, and we just thought, ‘This is going to be fun,'" says Rideout. “She brings this great level of comedy but also the perfect amount of heart.”
Donehy, they knew from the theatre world. “We thought he would come in and put himself in the equation with everybody else, and we were seeing incredible people, so don’t think we knew he was going to come in and grab the part, but he did,” says Epstein.
The cast also includes Bard on the Beach regular Andrew McNee, Grace Park (Hawaii Five-o), Andrea Bang (Kim’s Convenience), Siobhan Williams, Alex Barima, and comedian Russell Peters, who Epstein describes as “hilarious, and just telling tales all day.”
Despite the film's emphasis on fun, some moments during production were anything but. Filming took place in late 2016 during an unexpected cold snap and dump of snow, and they had to “frame out the snow and make it look like summertime,” recalls Rideout.
And then there’s the challenge of crewing up when the city is busy. Vancouver has bounced back from the hungry days of the #SaveBCFilm campaign – when the service work dried up and numerous studios sat empty – but with a record number of productions currently shooting around town, it can be next to impossible for an indie film to fill its crew positions. Adventures in Public School faced this challenge, according to Epstein.
The team was ultimately able to find and hire all the crew members they required (“We were lucky that a few of them had heard about Eadweard and a few of them that we had wanted to work with were open to it,” says Epstein), but Epstein hopes that “crews continue to want to work on this kind of stuff, because if we want to build that community of films from BC, then we really need the talent and the crew all to be at a high level.”
Adventures in Public School is one of three locally produced films screening as part of Canada’s Top Ten Festival. Kathleen Hepburn’s poignant feature film debut Never Steady, Never Still (which stars Scottish actor Shirley Henderson as Judy, a mother wrestling with Parkinson’s in northern British Columbia) and the profound and powerful Luk’Luk’I (which looks at Vancouver 2010 Olympics fever through a DTES lens and won filmmaker Wayne Wapeemukwa the award for Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF) are also on the schedule.
Rounding out Canada’s Top Ten Festival: Allure, a psychological thriller starring Evan Rachel Wood and Julia Sarah Stone; Charles Officer’s documentary Unarmed Verses, about a shy adolescent discovering the power of poetry; Alanis Obomsawin’s deeply affecting Our People Will Be Healed, which spotlights action-driven decolonization efforts; DOXA standout RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World, about the oft-acknowledged impact of First Nations musicians on rock music; The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches from Simon Lavoie; Ava, Sadaf Foroughi’s debut feature about an upper-middle-class teen who rebels against her parents and society; Les Affamés, a zombie film from Québécois director Robin Aubert; and three shorts programs.
Canada’s Top Ten Festival runs January 12-20 at The Cinematheque. Peruse the full schedule – and buy tickets – at http://www.thecinematheque.ca/canadas-top-ten-film-festival.