It's no secret that one of the best perks of running Foster Focus is getting to see any foster care related films and T.V. shows before they hit the public. The bulk of them have been tremendous, a few left me hoping for a bit more and one or two have really blown me away. Know How, a production written and acted in by foster youth in the Possibility Project program, falls into that last category.
Let me stress this point. If I didn't tell you that this movie was written by foster youth, YOU'D HAVE NO IDEA. If I didn't tell you that the principle players in this movie were actors pulled right from the foster care system, YOU'D HAVE NO CLUE. If I told you that this was a big budget Hollywood production with actors who come from acting schools from around the country, YOU WOULD TOTALLY BELIEVE ME.
That's the beauty of Know How. It manages to be gritty and raw while being aesthetically gorgeous and visually on par with studio backed efforts.
Director Juan Carlos Pineiro Esoriaza brings his personal flair to Know How's overall feel. Bringing the busy streets of New York City, with all its characters to the big screen is no small task and yet Pineiro Esoriaza not only achieves that feat but manages to create a sense of intimacy amongst the wildness of the world the characters find themselves.
The screen brightens with awe-inspiring slow snapshots of New York City at night. The neon clashing against the darkness of late night sky gives a visual strength to a heartfelt rap verse inviting the viewer into this thought provoking film.
Reality smacks you in the mouth as the key characters are introduced in a wave of short glimpses. The quick insights set the mood for the 2 hour intrusion into these youths lives.
The point of this review is to entice you to watch the film which is making the rounds in the festival circuit now. With that in mind, you won't be getting the entire plot here. Instead, we'll take a brief look at the main characters and how they became part of this tapestry of a film.
We'll start with Addie played by Niquana Clark. Addie plays a dual role as both a focal point and the navigator of the film's path, her voice is the guide through the treacherous look at the circumstances the foster youth in the film face. She is a street smart under achiever, in the care of her unsympathetic aunt, with a cynical view on what life has to offer. In her words she manages life in a city "full of subways and dreams". She has all the tools to succeed but will she learn how to use them in time to graduate?
Next, weaving their way through subway cars James and Austin, a set of brothers, played by Michael Kareem Dew and Gilbert Howard, left to the street depending on each other for survival. The actors do a phenomenal job of convincing the viewer that they are brothers who depend on each other to survive. The struggle to eat, struggle to find a warm bed and reach out to a bad element to help get them through. Will James' hope and Austin's hunger to get money lead them off the streets to a good life or to a jail cell?
Another set of siblings composed of two sisters with polar opposite personalities. Eva and Desi live with a father who wakes up to go to work and returns later only to rest for the next day of work. They learn to take care of themselves. Desi played by Ainsley Henry, who gives a brilliantly subtle performance, glides carelessly through life as Eva, a highly motivated student and unwilling caretaker who overcomes her surroundings on her way to a college acceptance. Wonderfully played by Gabrielle Garcia, Eva's determination keeps the family together. The demons of their father threaten to tear the family apart. How will they react to their time in care?
The film does a quality job of giving insight into the traumas that these foster youth have faced. At no point is this more evident than the story line involving Megan a tortured soul with a lip ring. Brilliantly portrayed by Claribelle Pagan, Megan is the epitome of the tragic foster youth. Beaten and battered, abused and blamed she represents the hardest affected foster youth. She enters care amid allegations of abuse. When she is separated from her sister, Kayla, portrayed effortlessly by Lee Jiminez, her rock, she is forced to face the world on her own. Is a residential treatment facility away from her sister the right place for such a fragile girl?
Before we meet the final players, attention needs to be given to the supporting cast. A mix of novice and veteran actors fill out this world created by those living it. A few stand outs included those who played social workers and parents of foster youth. Vincent Notice's depiction of a beaten down father who battles an addiction to drugs while trying to take care of two girls was especially poignant.
The collective work of this ensemble cast leaves the viewer wondering if this was really most of the actors first time on camera. There is a tone of wisdom, of subtlety which this cast possesses which usually takes actors years to accomplish. The talent of the cast only serves to amplify the emotion and message that the viewer sees on screen.
Rounding out the cast of main players, a love struck boyfriend and girlfriend live estranged. Maintaining a relationship can be difficult for any two people but when Marie, who lives life in a group home and her boyfriend Trey, who lives a normal life, it makes staying together nearly impossible. Ebonee Simpson does an especially fine job of bringing the hang-ups that prevent many foster youth from having healthy relationships alive on screen.
Watching DeShawn Brown bring Trey to life on screen, watching him make his character stay grounded while his girlfriend's myriad of emotions are hurled at him is a true lesson in patience.
When you get to see this movie, when you get to see these scenes play out on film, when you get the chance to watch these young adult's lives bleed through the camera you may finally have an inkling, a glimpse, a sliver of understanding as to what life in care is all about. And you may finally get the answer you've been looking for to the question of How do they make it? How do they survive? When you do get to see this film you will "Know How".