I will first of all confess more than a little bit of a bias when it comes to the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, a film competition started by actor/comic/activist Nic Novicki in 2014 with a primary mission of promoting collaboration between disabled and nondisabled creatives to tell unique stories that showcase disability in its many forms.
As a film journalist who is also a paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida, the opportunity to empower and equip creative voices with disabilities excites me and I've been honored to serve as a judge for the competition for the past four years alongside a myriad of other noteworthy individuals. A relentless networker and relationship builder, Novicki has helped guide the film challenge to extraordinary heights in terms of its judges, sponsors, mentors, and toward a record 95 entries in 2022 despite the challenges of a pandemic that is still influencing the lives of many including those with disabilities.
Once again, Indy's Heartland Film is spotlighting the film challenge's winners during the Indy Shorts International Film Festival and it gave me another chance to check the films out without the pressure of deciding where I was going to distribute my votes. Indeed, the votes are already in and the winners selected in a year that absolutely blew me away with the quality of films, filmmakers, actors, and behind-the-scene folks. These are the four film challenge winners screening at this coming week's Indy Shorts:
The ambitious and insightful Mac & Cheese took home the film challenge's top prize of Best Film with an exceptional mix of fine ensemble acting, a relevant message, strong production values, and mac & cheese. In fact, the film also took home the Best Director prize for Amanda Pinto and Best Editor for Jake Nathanson.
As a side note, I just have to say that one weird thing about me is that I've never had mac & cheese. I know. Weird, right?
In the film, an everyday hero grapples with friendship, responsibility, and the decision to eat (or not to eat) his roommate's mac & cheese. Mac & Cheese is truly the complete package, a huge reason why it picked up the Best Film prize with strong directorial focus by Amanda Pinto guiding a terrific ensemble cast toward a message that could have so easily been maudlin or corny but instead comes off as honest and natural and more than a little funny. The script by Yianni Papadimos is pointed and insightful while also entertaining and engaging.
Did I mention there's even a time-travel element here?
Mac & Cheese is a beauty in a year when the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge had quite a few truly outstanding entries. Tasked with making a film within a week using the 2022 theme of "superhero," Pinto and her cast and crew have hit a home run with the delightful Mac & Cheese.
Speaking of multiple prizes, Natalie Trevonne picked up the film challenge's Best Actor prize for the second year in a row with her emotionally resonant and physically demanding turn in Seven, a film about a 19-year-old girl who is plucked out of her everyday life after finding out she's the next slayer and the only one who can save the world. Grasping to understand her true destiny, tensions run high as she trains with her watcher, Mr. Gordon (Jongman Kim).
If you're like me (you're not), you're likely going to think about The Karate Kid while watching Seven. However, the stakes are higher here and the intensity quite a bit more amped up. When you compare this film to Trevonne's award-winner from 2021, Nay Nay Too Bomb, it's clear that the gifted Trevonne has a range we're only beginning to discover. It's going to be an awful lot of fun watching her continue to grow. Co-written by Trevonne with director Marie Alyse Rodriguez, Seven is an action-packed and meaningful film that lasts only five minutes but maximizes those minutes with a story that will undeniably click with audiences.
If there was an unexpected film challenge favorite this year, it had to be the ingenious Superhero, Inc., a film that picked up the Best Writer prize for co-writers Christine Belanger and Elizabeth "Liz" Whitmere. As someone who is on the Employment First committee for the State of Indiana, I fell in love with the brilliance of Superhero, Inc., a film about a telekinetic job hunter who encounters an immovable hiring manager. This is one of those films where you think to yourself "There's no way this can work!" and then it does. It works and works and works and works. It's just a brilliant five-minute short with social commentary galore and a scenario likely lived out by more than a few job seekers with disabilities, myself included, who won't know whether to laugh or cry at the familiarity one feels while watching it. The visual palette here is an absolute cinematic feast and quite honestly there's something wrong with you if you don't absolutely love this film.
Finally, there's ILY, recipient of the Best Awareness Campaign that centers around a group of five girlfriends in their early twenties having a girls' night conversation about stalled careers, relationships, dating, sex, and much more. They aren't really heroes. They aren't really anti-heroes. They're humans and, it would seem, that's exactly the point in this insightful short directed by Christine Marshall that lingers in your mind long after its closing credits have rolled. ILY's ensemble is absolutely terrific here and this is a film that has stuck in my mind long after having watched it during this year's film challenge.
All four films are screening as part of the Spotlight: Easterseals Disability Film Challenge program during the 2022 Indy Shorts International Film Festival and are proof positive of the immensely talented individuals participating in the film challenge and in the vitality of their choices. You'll want to check out this program during this coming week's Indy Shorts.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic