Americans love escapism. We love to sit in a theater or sit down with a book and forget exactly what is wrong with our country, our universe and our lives. If you want proof check out the immense popularity of Twilight, Avatar and Harry Potter. It is perhaps because of this skewed world view that our development is arrested. Half of our lives we are convinced, as Tyler Durden preaches, that we will become rock stars and movie stars and, most absurdly of all, we will fall in love. In the bleak landscape of the 1980’s, amidst crack and Regeanomics, an American voice told us that everything would be alright in the end. That voice came from John Hughes. Sarah Wilson, my multi-talented sister, was a 70’s baby. She grew up watching 16 Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club and Some Kind of Wonderful, and it was from these movies that she constructed her ideal of love. And once that ideal was shaped by the realities of life, she turned her sour grapes into a film, Jelly.
I had the pleasure of working on Sarah’s first feature film three summers ago, and yesterday it premiered, long overdue, at the San Diego Black Film Festival. Jelly is the story of a young woman, in Los Angeles, no Hollywood, well actually, North Hollywood, learning that what love is and what it seems to be are quite different.
The eponymous Jelly, played by Sarah Wilson who also wrote and produced the film, is a voluptuous woman dealing with her recent breakup from Luke. She relies on a support system of family and her two friends Mona and Floyd. Floyd is the tragically overlooked nice guy, the perfect guy, who listens to the barrage of self-deprecating remarks that flow from Jelly routinely. Of course he is secretly, or not so secretly, in love with Jelly.
Having already seen the film, I was able to watch the audience’s reaction and pay attention to aspects of the film previously lost on me. From the beginning, the audience was engaged by a clear and different voice that sought to tell a unique story. Jelly tries everything to get over Luke: giving away her eggs (thinking that Luke will be furious she can never have his children), a one night stand with a new guy, the Broken Hearts therapy group, the closure clinic ran by Ed McMahon, and finally befriending the sensual, Latin beauty Sandy Lopez for advice on how to attract men. Floyd and Mona are there every step of the way, despite battling their own problems, to listen to Jelly complain about how life isn’t like a John Hughes movie. And indeed it is not.
Jelly’s world is filled with characters from a surreal, nightmarish existence. She is accosted at the gym by an old lady who kicks her off the machine and interrupts her daydreaming. At the egg clinic everyone laughs at her as she tries to get a refund. At the closure clinic a self aware Ed McMahon shows Jelly their closure simulations in which an actor takes the place of the unrequited lover. And it’s not just restricted to Jelly. Mona meets a mysterious woman in her diner that leaves behind a love potion to be used on her married boss. Floyd is verbally abused by a literary agent who is hell bent on shattering his ego. The world is a combative war zone that is attempting to beat the last drop of optimism out of Jelly and her friends.
And yet they persevere. In the end Jelly finally realizes that the fairy tale has been right in front of her the whole time. Floyd, despite an ill-advised sexual encounter with Mona, has been waiting for Jelly to open her eyes and come to her senses which she finally does. Relieved of her crazy notion of what life is, she puts on her fancy dress and prepares to face Luke, at his wedding, in all of her glory. She never gets there. Outside waiting for her, a la the late great John Hughes, is Floyd in a tuxedo. She never makes it to the wedding, but she finds true love.
The audience at the San Diego Black Film Festival ate the movie up. There was big laughter as Jelly tries her unsuccessful foray into the world of casual sex and when Jelly’s father Joe Woods, played by Reginald VelJohnson, gives the performance of a lifetime at a Baptist passion play. The audience, impressed by all the performances, was clearly invested in the chemistry between Floyd and Jelly. Floyd was played brilliantly by John Boyd who was the right amount of depressed writer and charismatic friend. Mona, played by Natasha Leon, received praise as the cynical realist. Jelly is an audience movie, one that makes you laugh and makes you cry and doesn’t fail at making a point: true love is hard to find, try not to miss it when it’s there.
The Q & A session found the audience reveling in the filmmakers’, Mercedes Leanza (who also played Sandy Lopez) and Sarah Wilson, ability to pull off a well-produced and professional independent film. One audience member called into question the validity of a movie that surrounds an interracial couple at a black film festival. The question was answered honestly and truthfully, “We set out to make a film about love, not about race.” We should hope that love is more important in the long run.
Jelly is awaiting release on Netflix, itunes and other media sources. Clicking save on Netflix will expediate the process, so go forth and do! Stella Bella Productions, founded and owned by Ms. Wilson and Ms Leanza, wrapped production on another film in November (The Accidental Death of Joey by Sue) and is in pre-production for The Scarlet Ibis. Expect more films in the very near future from these young and ambitious filmmakers.