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Short Films in Focus: Ava's Dating a Senior!

What happens in Frédéric Da’s “Ava’s Dating A Senior!” is nothing earth-shattering. Unless of course, you vividly remember the days when you found out that someone you like is dating someone else, someone much higher up on the social ladder than yourself. Older, better looking, and more popular. Everything you’re not. It’s even worse when everyone has been aware of this fact but you. That’s an earth-shattering moment, certainly, and Da’s film captures these moments with his short film, which incorporates scenes from his feature, “Teenage Emotions.” 

Da created this short film prior to expanding it to a feature that's now making the festival rounds. I have seen both and the moments captured here are spread throughout the feature, which is made up of several story threads. The feature works well on its own. It starts with gossip that drives the actions of one of the characters, continues with a few dilemmas the characters must face, and ends with a heartbreaking conclusion.

The story might not even seem like anything to get excited about, but Da’s film (and from here on in, I’m only going to refer to the short) comes off as a documentary. I found myself double-checking the categories on Vimeo and IMDb because the performances and the cast for this film felt authentic in a way we seldom see in teen films. Everyone here looks and sounds like someone you went to high school with and not a Hollywood-ized version of that. The approach reminded me of Laurent Cantet’s extraordinary 2008 film “The Class,” in which real teenagers were cast as themselves and acted out scenes of conflict with their homeroom teacher. 

The drama here, though basic and familiar, is no less compelling. Da recognizes the need to not write too much in his own voice, but rather to capture the essence of the moments, and let the teenagers who might well have been through these problems recently do the writing and composing of the scenes. Again, even this approach is nothing new. But “Ava’s Dating A Senior!” somehow feels fresh and exciting all the same. 

Q&A with writer/director Frédéric Da.

I know this is part of a feature (“Teenage Emotions”), but how did the whole project come about?

The making of “Ava’s Dating a Senior! is actually what inspired “Teenage Emotions.” I had been teaching Film Theory and Film Production in a high school in Santa Monica for a few years, and had been trying to make movies with my students. I tried a few fully scripted things, I tried using nice cameras, I tried doing multiple takes ... somehow it just never came off as authentic as the environment I was in. I started testing out shooting with iPhones, I stopped color grading and wrote out “arcs” instead of full scenes. Little by little, the result was starting to feel authentic and raw. The first time everything seemed to click was “Ava’s Dating a Senior!” which we shot over lunch breaks with some of my students. Once I had that, the next natural step was to keep adding different characters and storylines, using the same process. That, ultimately, became “Teenage Emotions.”

This might be a loaded question, but can you walk me through the process of creating a scene with these people, and then the editing process? 

The essentials are straightforward: I have an idea for a scene. I talk about it with the kids. During lunch we do the scene, in one continuous take, for about 30 minutes. There is an iPhone on each kid in the scene (if it’s three kids, then three iPhones) and I have a Lav mic on each kid, going into a TASCAM DR-70. I let them improvise and keep bringing them back to the central thesis of the scene and feeding them lines in the moment, when their tangents get too off-topic. Then we airdrop all the footage from the different phones to my computer. I sync and stack the footage in Final Cut and then I edit a rough piece together by the end of the day, to be sure of what we need to shoot the next day. It’s run and gun; but it allows the movies to stay loose and the plots to develop organically. But in the end, it’s hours of footage, which translates into months of editing. 

What went into the idea for the short?

I try to let the stories kinda come to me. I’ve had some of these students for six years, and so I’m privy to some gossip from time to time. Then, based on a nugget of truth, I will try to create a very light fictional narrative around it. For example, in “Ava’s Dating a Senior!, Ava was in fact dating a senior—and there was a lot of drama surrounding that. It reminded me of a lot of memories from my own freshman year in high school, and so I focused the movie on Silas—who is in love with a girl in his grade, but is jealous because she is dating someone that, essentially, he believes he can’t compete with.  

What has the response been like to both/either “Teenage Emotions” and/or “Ava’s Dating A Senior!”? 

I am overwhelmed by the response to both. Both “Ava’s Dating a Senior!” And “Teenage Emotions premiered at Slamdance and got great reviews. We just put “Ava’s Dating a Senior! online two weeks ago and were blessed with the Vimeo Staff Pick badge, which has allowed a lot of people to find it and watch it. 

In both films, you seemed to have avoided the trappings of using phones and texting as part of the narrative and keeping the interactions almost entirely personal. It makes the film seem timeless, in a way. Was that important to you? 

VERY important. What makes a work of art “timeless” is a favorite debate topic of mine in my Film Theory classes. To me, there are certain movies from the 1920’s, like Tod Browning’s “The Unknown or King Vidor’s “The Crowd,” which, essentially, feel like they were made/written last year- despite the obvious technical limitations of their era. On the flip side, there are some films that came out a year ago that already feel dated, because they rely on filmmaking gimmicks or CGI. If you look at the movies from the French New Wave, many of them are using plenty of visual gimmicks that were fresh at the time, but aren’t today. Those movies remain historically important- but they’re not hitting the same way today as they were back then. However, if you watch “The Green Ray,” “Full Moon in Paris,” or really anything by Rohmer, these movies still pop the way they did when they first came out because Rohmer has stripped all the bells and whistles from his filmmaking. He is focused purely on relationships and conversations. I believe it’s also why Youtube podcasts are so popular. 

What’s next for you?

I have just wrapped editing my newest short entitled “nobody cares,” starring Jaya Harper who was one of my main actors in “Teenage Emotions.” It also takes place in a school, but is much more narrative and less “floaty” than the other stuff I’ve done. Same process, though.

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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