Short film ‘Mi Madre, My Father’ packs a mighty emotional punch
Michelle Morgan doesn’t waste a single frame in her short film, Mi Madre, My Father.
There’s the shot where the 6-year-old protagonist holds a spoon to her pill-popping mother’s nostrils to make sure she’s still breathing; the shot where she delicately prepares a peanut butter sandwich on a debris-strewn countertop and wraps it in a soiled napkin; the shot where she stoically pulls her hair back into a ponytail.
Every one of Mi Madre, My Father’s sixteen minutes packs an emotional punch.
It’s quite an accomplishment, considering that Mi Madre, My Father is Morgan’s directorial debut, and short films, though, well, short, are incredibly difficult to hit out of the park.
But the fact that the film is so successful – that this particular journalist was sobbing within 30 seconds of hitting play on the screener – is a testament to Morgan’s innate skill as a storyteller, the quality of her cast (which includes Arrow star Stephen Amell and an enchanting child actor named Lina Renna), and her commitment to the integrity of the story, about a first-grader in East Vancouver who is neglected by her parents but doted on by the gay couple next door.
Mi Madre, My Father – which screens on January 26 at the 2019 Vancouver Short Film Festival – is inspired by a true story: that of an Australian woman named Mel Gray, who Morgan met during a visit to Los Angeles.
“She told me about her childhood, and I was completely bowled over and enraptured by her story: how she was completely neglected by her mother and her father was pretty much absent, and I said, ‘How did you survive? How did you manage to do it?’ And she said, ‘I had these neighbours, these two flight attendants, a gay couple who would put fresh fruit in my backpack, and they would make me dinner and take care of me,’ and I thought it was such an amazing story,” says the Vancouver-based actress and filmmaker, who has played Lou on CBC’s hit horse-centric family drama Heartland for 12 seasons.
Gray shared her tale with Morgan at a time when the latter was seeking inspiration for her directorial debut. Morgan was inspired by the sadness and strength in Gray’s story – and the message it contained about caring for people beyond our network of immediate family and friends.
“I think it’s important that in this world where we go home and shut the door and we have our nuclear families and we like our privacy, that as neighbours, we’re still aware of what’s happening in our own community,” says Morgan. “I think it’s important that we’re community minded, and we’re paying attention to the children in our community and the families in our community. It doesn’t mean invading people’s privacy. It just means being a good neighbour.”
Morgan wore multiple hats on Mi Madre, My Father: producer, director, and actor. She portrayed the titular “madre” – an emotionally stunted woman wrestling with drug addiction and a bad marriage.
She wrote the script before the opioid epidemic had caught the attention of the mainstream media, but notes that it is nonetheless timely in how it illustrates the pervasiveness of addiction.
“That was something that Mel had told me about her mother was that she was actually very beautiful and very charismatic and able to cover up the truth of what was happening at home,” says Morgan.
“One of the interesting things about the opioid crisis is that, unfortunately, if it was only people on the street dying, it really wouldn’t be on the news as much as it is now because there have been middle-class people, people from all classes, affected by this,” she adds. “That’s what started getting it into the news, which is really unfortunate. All that is to say that we don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors and we can never really know.”
For the father character – a playboy who deserts his wife and daughter for extended periods of time – Morgan approached her old friend and former Heartland co-star, Amell.
“The reason I was confident reaching out to him was I know as an actor who is on television playing the same role for many years, we’re often really excited to branch out and to do a little indie project as an excuse just to flex another muscle and try something different, and he was,” says Morgan. “He was excited about it and it was something completely different from Arrow and completely different from the genre he’s used to working in.”
“He was so wonderful,” she adds. “He literally came to our set and then had to immediately go to the Arrow set and work another 15 hours. I was really impressed with him. He’s such a pro.”
It was decidedly more difficult for Morgan to cast the central role of 6-year-old Valentina. “I really wanted to avoid that classic cutesy actor that you get with a lot of child actors,” recalls Morgan. “I just wanted someone who could be really natural, and where we could feel a little bit like a fly on a wall. That was hard” – but she found her star in Renna, whose credits include The 100, Somewhere Between, and When We Rise.
“She was very natural, and engaged, and also very brave and upfront with the material,” says Morgan. “We would talk about the fact that, ‘Okay, you’re coming into the room and once again your mother is passed out to the point where you have to check the breathing, and this happens every morning so it’s not so upsetting, this is just how your morning goes,’ and she just took that at face value and was like, ‘Yep.’ She’s a mature young girl.”
Mi Madre, My Father also stars Robert Moloney and Shayn Walker as the concerned neighbours, and Bryan Bruno as Valentina’s friend. It was produced by Madeleine Davis and Fiona Vroom, and funded primarily through an Indiegogo campaign.
While Morgan is excited for VSFF audiences to screen Mi Madre, My Father this weekend, she’s already received the feedback she cares about the most: that of Gray, the inspiration for the film. “She really does love the film, and I hope it’s been a part of her healing process,” says Morgan.
Morgan’s second short film – a romantic comedy called Save Yourself, about a woman who decides to learn how to surf in order to reconnect with her ex – is already out in the world. She recently completed the Women in the Director’s Chair mentorship program and is hard at work on her first feature: a modern-day, female-driven Western action adventure.
“I’m still very much experimenting and discovering what my aesthetic is,” she says.
Mi Madre, My Father screens January 26 at the 2019 Vancouver Short Film Festival. Tickets and information at http://www.vsff.com.