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A Most Assured First Feature: One Penny

One 01

By Elias Savada.

Part I: The Buildup

So, how many teenagers have you met who say they want to make movies when they grow up? Fame and fortune is just around the corner, right? Well, I’ve seen too many homegrown filmmaker dreams turn into muddled nightmares on the road to stardom, and a first feature misstep usually drops those kids back to reality and a 9-to-5 job.

When David A. Melendez and Michael DeVita were students at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland, they had a passion for such Hollywood fantasies, but lacked any formal filmmaking education. As they entered their twenties, they had a few short films under their belt, but realized that if any of their hopes would see the light of day – or the darkness of a movie theatre – then they needed a plan to finance them. Toss out the lemonade stand and bake sale notions. Throw in house flipping, thanks to some constructive advice from DeVita’s stepfather. Buy a house. Fix it up. Sell it. Use the profits to buy movie equipment and experiment with quick shoots at Seneca Creek State Park in the Maryland suburbs. Rinse, repeat.

Part II: The Delivery

All the while these now 30-something filmmakers (yes, they’ve earned it) worked on a handful of indie-worthy scripts. One Penny, an old-fashioned coming-of-age drama, was first out of the gate. Patience has paid off with a micro-budget feature that has been playing at film festivals since its world premiere at the DC Independent Film Festival (where it won best feature). The awards are still coming in – over a dozen so far. Next up: The San Antonio Film Festival on August 3rd.

While sharing screenwriting credit, the partners in their basement biz StonePark Productions (the film company) and StonePark Studios (its visual effects division) served in other capacities on the film, including director, director of photography, Steadicam operator, post production supervisor, digital intermediate colorist, visual effects supervisor (DeVita) and producer, production manager/supervisor, extras casting (Melendez). Other members of their families (and, no doubt, many friends) also had a lot to do with the film getting done.

The cast all offer well-crafted performances, particularly Harrison Samuels as Dylan, an enterprising youth desperately trying to find a way to conquer the limitations of his homeless existence, and Carson Grant (“The Professor) as a long-time resident of Shepherd’s Cove, a tent city. He’s a man with a past, but he’s also cared for Dylan as stand-in and stand-up father figure for a decade.

The film is one awesome location shoot, even if it was pieced together from numerous sites throughout the Maryland-DC suburbs, as well as scenes filmed in Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland. There is definitely a sense of centrality at its core.

Part III: The Verdict

As a 5½-year old child, Dylan is pushed to safety as his mother is chased on a cobblestone alley by a group of thugs. On his own, the youngster is befriended by a homeless man. They seem to connect as if their similar blue, black, and white clothes were a sign of kinship. Ten years pass and the now teenage boy is timid yet determined to help his friends in the Cove.

Yes, there’s a girl in here. She’s Jordan (Erin O’Brien), a slight older woman who pops in to help Dylan in his various quests for a seat at the risk-taking table. While the role is well filled by the L.A.-based actress, it is the weakest written, as she is the girlfriend of Tristan (Ben Rezendes), the film’s big baddie and Dylan’s nemesis. While Jordan does eventually figure her b.f.’s agenda out, it’s a character that would have worked better if she were his sister or some other acquaintance. She’s just too savvy to have not figured out the menace so close.

There’s also a wisecracking sidekick. Here it’s the disheveled Collin, Dylan’s bf and a slight level down on sophistication. I’ve seen the actor, Will Roland, before, at DC’s Arena Stage as a featured performer in Dear Evan Hansen, the incredible play starring Ben Platt that has since gone on to Broadway. He looks quite different. Still a fine performer.

The story is pushed along with well-crafted, in-your-face camerawork and sophisticated editing. Nothing extravagant, but something that DeVita takes great care to showcase. Low camera angles, good blocking and movement, and nicely cut sequences often push the viewer into the frame as a close-up observer. The film has good transitions into some of the memory fragments Dylan experiences, flashing back to his mother and her demise. The screenplay, aided by the performances of Samuels and Roland – an amicable duo – follows the pair as they move from one potential money-making scheme to the next, while trying to sidestep the malevolent Tristan. As the battle between Dylan and Tristan heats up in the last third of the film, the slow pan shots to the latter’s cloaked-in-darkness car (reflecting on the latter’s increased fixation on doing dastardly things to Dylan), evolve into an incredibly intensely orchestrated fight sequence.

There’s a great deal of control at work here and DeVita and Melendez have shown a great deal of creativity in this freshman study of homeless life in the streets. Their honestly-told tale is further enhanced by an uplifting score by Danny Gray and a soundtrack graced with some inspirational songs. One Penny may not take them to Hollywood, but the film definitely deserves a wider audience. Shunning, for now, a release through normal channels, it will be self-distributed later this year.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).

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