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by debbie lynn elias
Newcomer director/writer Jessica Manafort throws her hat into the LA Film Festival with a simply beautiful and ordinary film - THEAmber Heard, Lyndsy Fonseca, Marnette Patterson and Melonie Diaz in Jess Manafort's THE BEAUTIFUL ORDINARY small - Photo Credit Fred Norris BEAUTIFUL ORDINARY.  Proving that some of the most beautiful and memorable experiences in life don’t require high tech special effects, car chases, explosions, pirates, ogres or George Clooney, but rather just a simple straightforward connectable script with likeable characters and a common thread that touches us all, Manafort succeeds with what I consider to be one the frontrunners in the Narrative Competition.
How many of you remember your last day of school before summer vacation?  I remember them all.  Some were good.  Some were bad.  But no matter what, all were memorable.  And I would pretty much bet my condo that most of you remember yours, too; whether you will admit to it or not is another story.
It’s the last day of school for summer 1999.  Y2K hasn’t arrived.  We are in a pre-terrorist United States.    High school students only have a few ordinary things to think about - friends, dating, partying, okay a few think about college and grades, and having fun.  And the students of Wilmington, North Carolina High School (which could be in suburban Anytown, USA) are no different as they look ahead to the future.   For some, it’s simply summer vacation.  For others, it’s next year as a Freshman, sophomore, junior or senior.  For others, its college.  And still for others, they have no clue.   Everyone’s future has yet to be written, but what they all have in common is partying on the first night of summer vacation, even though all of them are underage.
The cliques, couples and personalities are identified from the get-go.  Stacey Cherry is an obsessive compulsive cheerleader with a “Saved by the Bell” Jessie Spano smile and Kelly Kapowski over-flowing personality.   Her slacker homey boyfriend Dillon lives in her basement unbeknownst to her mother and despite warnings from her friends that he treats her badly and she should dump him, she won’t without a “good reason.”  Her only priorities for the day are her pep rally that they trained “really, really, really, really hard for”, and having a beer and getting wasted at a party later in the night.   Her best friend Julia isn’t sure of anything except partying while her sometimes boyfriend Pete is upset over flunking 2 classes so he doesn’t get to graduate.   Our illustrious stoner dudes, Felix and Mod, are of course worried about only one thing.   Need I say more about them?    Holly just graduated middle school and is in oh such a rush to grow up and be a high schooler.   Biz and Eddie and their friends are the local homeboys who really come across more as wannabe homeys, especially Eddie who has such respect for his female friends it’s heartwarming.   Brianne and Dawn have been “BFF for a gizillion years.”    Thomas, a very quiet reserved Asian student, says nothing but photographs everything.   And of course, we’ve got a band.
Starting at daybreak, we get to see the ebb and flow of the high school dynamic.  This is a typical day in the life of a high school aged teen.  Some are cutting class.  All are driving around looking for the night’s hot party.  Some want to hook-up.  Some want to break-up.  The camera follows them all and we see it all. The fun.  The sadness.  The goofiness.  The bad behavior.  But through it all - pure unadulterated joy.  We’ve got multiple parties happening.  Some planned with guests.  Others not planned but word of mouth invites solve that problems.  There’s even a “Sharks v. Jets” rumble at a keg party on the athletic fields.    Most touching is when the lights go down and the groups go their separate ways, we see what each really is inside.  The facades are dropped and the heart and soul of these young people are exposed for all to see.  Very plain, very ordinary, but all very special in their own unique way.   There are some of these friendships that you know won’t last, but others, well, they will be BFF (Best Friends Forever for those not in the know).  
There’s not a character in here that won’t remind you of someone you know or knew.  Someone that made your days at high school, or even that very last day before summer, something more than ordinary.
The cast, while almost unknown but with a few recognizable faces, is exemplary. Marnette Patterson as cheerleader Stacey Cherry is a joy to watch, particularly in light of her prior works and the antithesis of Stacey to anything else she has done.  I have admired her work for some time thanks to her performance as the dislikable evil witch “Kristy” on “Charmed”, not to mention a turn in last year’s Atlanta Film Festival winner “Pope Dreams” and an appearance on “CSI”.  She always brings a new level, a new edge to her performance.    I am thrilled to see Lyndsy Fonseca so prominently featured as Dawn. I caught her in "How I Met Your Mother" and "CSI" and I have always thought she had such screen presence and so much potential. And Alexa Vega.....soooo nice to see her transition from "Spy Kids" to a more mature "adult" teen  role.  But even cast as junior high graduate Holly who just can’t wait to be a mature high school student, she still retains the sweetness, charm and likeability we have all come to know and love from “Spy Kids.”    Brothers Chris and Sean Marquette are perfect as stoner brothers Felix and Mod and with their performances, there is no doubt that they really are brothers.   A long time sitcom fave of mine is Wesley Jonathan and here as homeboy Biz is as enjoyable as ever.  Melonie Diaz as Brianne is especially impressive and has the strength of personality I’ve seen in Kimberley Elise.   Notable is newcomer Charles Chen as the tacit photographer Thomas.  And familiar faces like Brie Larson and Amber Heard, and others too numerous to mention, all add dimension and warmth to the story.    I have to give Manafort big kudos for including her long time friends, the band Over It, as the high school punk rockers.   Looks like they be BFF themselves.  An enjoyable little cameo comes from Moira Kelly who now plays a frustrated mother.  Best known as the bitchy ice princess Kate Moseley in “The Cutting Edge”, it was a pleasant surprise to see her face pop in to view.
As writer and director, Jessica Manafort knows her material.  Born and bred in Alexandria, Virginia, Manafort was 17 in 1999.  This script, this story is from her heart.  This is from  experience.  Great care is paid to the individual characters and personalities, allowing each to unfold very naturally resulting in well-rounded personas and very eclectic mix.   These are ordinary people that you and I both knew in high school.  The dialogue is as if lifted from Manafort’s own last day of school.  It is refreshing, conversational and believable.
Lensing in Wilmington, North Carolina, the location is nondescript and beautiful.  Lush greenery.  Homes of brick, shingles, big ones and little ones.  No curbs.  Some neatly manicured lawns and some not so neat.  The neighborhoods have personality.  Lived in feelings.  A comfortable, ordinary place that lends itself well to the 35mm shoot.  The camerawork is simple and easy.  Nothing fancy.  No convoluted edits.  And especially commendable is the attention to the smaller details.  The accuracy of the party scenes.  The paint color on the walls and the lighting that captures the warmth of friendships and adds a soft glow to happy, smiling faces.
Simple, understated, sweet, honest and nostalgic.   A slice of Americana.  A slice of each of our lives.    There is nothing ordinary about THE BEAUTIFUL ORDINARY.   Moments like these only come around once.  Thanks to Jessica Manafort, we get to live our own beautiful and ordinary life one more time.  Everything ordinary should always be this beautiful. 
THE BEAUTIFUL ORDINARY is screening Friday, June 22 at 7:30 p.m. at Landmark’s Regent; Tuesday, June 26 at 5:00 p.m. at The Landmark; and Wednesday, June 27 at 10:00 p.m. at The Landmark. original content copyright 2000-2017 by debbie lynn elias, all rights reserved
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