When it was announced that the newest film from eighteen-year-old director Emily Hagins, entitled My Sucky Teen Romance, was going to premiere at SxSW, I was ecstatic. Almost every member of our SXSW coverage team either lives or has previously lived in Austin and knows Emily personally. Hell, some of us even donated our time to assist in the movie’s completion. That made it slightly difficult to lend our voices to reviewing the film. So do we decline to review it? Do we expend no words on it at all? Yes…and no.
There is a story here, and a damn good one at that, completely divorced from the film itself. Emily’s story.
Hagins wrote her first feature-length film, Pathogen, at age 11. The next year, she earned a grant from the Austin Film Society to produce Pathogen, effectively becoming the youngest recipient of that award. Her tireless dedication to making her first feature film, and the fact that she wasn’t even in high school yet, attracted the attention of a trio of documentary filmmakers who noticed Hagins’s casting call posted on a local website called Austinactors.net. They crafted their 2009 film Zombie Girl: The Movie around her efforts. Between 7th and 8th grade, when the biggest thing that happened to most of us was getting our first kiss at a skating party, she was hard at work on The Retelling, her second feature. And now, here at SXSW 2011, Hagins’s third film played to bright marquee lights and packed houses at Austin’s historic Paramount theater.
But it would be illogical and nebulous to define any filmmaker by the sheer and simple fact that they have made films. Hagins impresses me as a filmmaker for a number of reasons that are all evident in My Sucky Teen Romance – her spoof on Twilight and teen love set at a sci-fi convention. The first would be the fact that she has already graduated past basic mechanical film principles and is getting more and more creative with both her scripts and her cinematography. The framing she utilizes and the angles she explores makes for a film as visually interesting as it is conceptually inviting; the almost perfectly triangular shots of the characters in the audience of a vampire panel is particularly nice. I also love that she is dabbling in satire. The shots her film takes at Twilight, while obviously appealing to me personally, is fiercely bold coming from a member of that franchise’s typical target audience.
She is also becoming quite adept at directing actors, and that is not surprising given her professional past. My Sucky Teen Romance is the first film she’s done on which she’s had producers who were able to handle the incidental tasks that, on each previous film, she had been doing herself. The necessity for her wearing all these different hats spread her attention thin and it’s clear that performances suffered for it. But I would argue she’s been strengthened by that adversity. It’s akin to a long-distance runner who trains for a 3K by training for a 5K. Hagins pushed herself to coach her actors in addition to running the day-to-day logistics on set to the point that now, when she is permitted to focus solely on her artists and her shots, My Sucky Teen Romance features the finest performances displayed in any film in her brief canon. Devin Bonnee is effortlessly cool and, at the same time, sincerely sinister. I also found myself wholeheartedly cackling at the comedic exploits of Tony Vespe.
Emily Hagins represents the next generation of filmmakers. Again, I am not basing this on the content or quality of My Sucky Teen Romance but rather Hagins’s tenacity and ingenuity. She used both the talent she discovered at her own high school and a website called IndieGoGo to gather together her necessary resources. IndieGoGo allows artists of various forms to launch a webpage to serve as a lightning rod for generous art patrons to donate money toward that artist’s latest project. The site then uses the social media titans of Facebook and Twitter to drive attention to the page. She made it possible, via IndieGoGo, for private donations to fund her film. The fact that she was able to raise nearly the film’s entire budget in this manner speaks to an opportunity open to current independent filmmakers that wasn’t available just ten years ago. She had a story she wanted to tell and was forced to get a little creative to gather what she needed to tell that story. This kind of internet-based, completely organic foundation perfectly blends the classic spirit of independent filmmaking with the changing climate of youth culture.
Hagins’s also benefited from living in Austin, TX. This a city that not only celebrates film as an art form, and has built cathedrals to this holy reverence in the Alamo Drafthouses, but that also become ground zero for independent film production. The sheer number of directors, writers, producers, and post-production wizards getting their start out here, outside the major studio system, is mind-boggling. In addition to this already embracing atmosphere, she has impressed so many locals with her talent and ambition that they have rallied around her and created a strange fictive kin network that includes professionals at every level of the filmmaking process. These avid supporters are the same folks who gave of themselves and their talents to help make My Sucky Teen Romance.
What does all this boil down to? What does it signify? We’ve entered an age wherein independent filmmakers are able to get started at younger and younger ages and, in fact, benefit from their youth. Now don’t misunderstand me, the utilization of altruistic websites and a film-savvy community means little if the abilities aren’t present early. Hagins’s skills behind the camera belie her age and are what amassed her notoriety in the first place. But she was fortunate enough to start making films in a time when the filmmaking process is not as alien and intangible as it once was. I also thoroughly appreciate that Hagins is making high-concept independent genre films. There are simply not enough genre films made independently because too often the conditioned association in an audience is genre=massive budget (i.e. superhero films, giant actioners, and 3D sci-fi opuses). She is among a crop of young filmmakers who no longer recognizes the categorical cells that confine genre within the studio system and grounded, intimate (sometimes to the point of pretentious) character pieces to the independent scene. Hagins understands that the story a filmmaker wants to tell should never be dictated by the budget. She has the skills, the vision, and the access to new resources that can easily open the door to a life-long career as a prominent director.
Do I like My Sucky Teen Romance? Yes. Do I think its flawed? Sure. But the flaws I find with it have less to do with the age of the director and more to do with the limitations of a meager, though impressively-obtained budget. One or two of the actors are so wet-behind-the-ears that the camera seems to terrify them entirely, but most of them have never been in front of one before so if nothing else their authenticity as “regular kids” fosters enough good will that the audience makes a concession or two. I have seen major studio films, by directors older and far more seasoned than Hagins, that have the same if not more glaring flaws. Still, to review the film like any other would be ethically shaky for this writer. But I look at young talent like Emily Hagins and I am genuinely excited for the future of film.