Zeno Mountain Farm makes best movie ever
Springtime feels good, and it’s about to feel even better. Zeno Mountain Farm (a foundation in Lincoln that champions lifelong friendship and opportunity for people with disabilities and other marginalized communities) is prepping to release its first feature length movie (shot in Lincoln and Bristol) to the public in late April. “Best Summer Ever” — a fresh and exhilarating take on the beloved teen musical genre — premiered last month at the annual South by Southwest festival to rave reviews.
The Hollywood Reporter called it “irresistibly likable.” USA Today ranked the musical number six in its top 10 films from SXSW 2021. “In totality, ‘Best Summer Ever’ is a sugary confection: absolutely sweet and bound to give you a stomachache from its pure positivity,” said the cinematic review site Elements of Madness (elementsofmadness.com).
The plot follows Sage and Tony who “had the ‘Best Summer Ever’ after falling in love at a dance camp in Vermont,” reads the film’s synopsis. “Not expecting to see each other again until the following summer, Sage, by a twist of fate, arrives unexpectedly at the same high school as Tony. (All filmed at Mount Abraham Union High.) Now faced with the drama of high school cliques, an evil cheerleader, and the illegal secret that keeps Sage’s family on the move, they are forced to reevaluate their relationship as Tony struggles to be both the high school football star and the dancer he’s always wanted to be.”
More than 50% of the cast and crew in this film — both in front and behind the camera — has a disability, said co-director Peter Halby, who together with his wife Ila, brother Will and his wife Vanessa founded and run Zeno Mountain Farm. Peter is also the co-executive producer of the movie and co-writer of much of the movie’s original eight musical tracks.
“None of our characters talk about their disability,” Peter noted. That’s not the point. “They are not defined by their disability, it’s just one of the aspects of who they are.”
Making inclusive films isn’t new for Zeno, in fact they’ve been running a retreat in Los Angeles for the past 12 years.
“We’d make short, half-hour movies over a two-week camp,” Peter explained. “That started snowballing and the movies kept getting bigger and we were upping the ante every year. Someday, we said, we’ve got to do a big feature — a musical, since musicals are really popular in our community. Someday, we’ll do the ultimate remake of ‘Grease,’ ‘Footloose’ and ‘Dirty Dancing’….”
That someday came in 2017, when they began writing the original script and fully inclusive cast for “Best Summer Ever.”
“Taking it to the next level for us meant involving people with disabilities in every side of it: casting and production,” said Peter, a University of Vermont grad. “People talk a lot about inclusion in films — 20% of the population identifies as having a disability — but Hollywood has not done a great job of authentic representation and inclusion…. We know so many people with disabilities that could play roles better than anyone else, but more than telling people that, we wanted to show them with this film.”
“This film is groundbreaking,” writer-producer Andrew Pilkington, who has cerebral palsy, said in a short documentary Zeno made to accompany the feature film. “We need to succeed because we need to prove that this can be done… In the real world people with disabilities aren’t seen as having value. But I hope that this film can prove them wrong.”
“I think it really gives an opportunity to show that we exist as people,” added actor Sam Suchmann.
“We brought in a few pros in the disability world for the lead roles,” Peter said. “Now they’re in our world. It’s been neat hearing them reflect on the experience… We work hard and create beautiful art on our movie sets, but also make sure to keep the element of whimsicalness — not make things too serious. Fun is always a key aspect of what we do.”
As you watch the film, you can’t help but feel that fun radiating off the set; especially in the grand number “Ready to Ride,” where the more than 90 people in the cast and over 100 extras (featuring lots of locals) dance in full synchronization down Bristol’s Main Street.
“We just called the town and asked if they’d shut down the street for a night,” Peter said simply. “And the high school basically handed us the keys…. I can’t wait to share the film here; the town and school were such a big part of it and were so helpful.”
Zeno plans to use this film (like the many other films they’ve created) to tour the country and help fundraising efforts for their programming. Beginning with a special online screening on April 23 at 8 p.m. followed by a Q&A. This comes just ahead of the official public premiere on April 27. Find tickets and more info at zenomountainfarm.org.
“I hope we’re making a film that makes people laugh, and cry and love and see the world a little bit differently and be more open when they leave,” said co-director and writer Lauren Smitelli.