I love a good love story and one of the best things about being a festival programmer and covering indie film for AMFM is that I get to see a lot of love stories, from all sorts of cultures and experiences. Not surprisingly, the further apart the stories seem at their open, the more it becomes obvious that love is universal. Capturing this powerful emotion is a triumph for any filmmaker, and doing it in such a way that we discover something about ourselves is truly special. So I am very proud to be writing today about Eric Schaeffer’s BOY MEETS GIRL, a film that I saw last year at the Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival that was one of the most heartfelt and rich expressions of Love I’ve seen in years.

Ricky and Robby have been friends since childhood – they’ve never dated. Ricky confides in Robby how she can’t seem to find any guys worth dating, and Robby brags about his empty sexual exploits with girls. They should obviously be together. You’ve seen this one before, right? Except Ricky is a transgender girl who, in this small town, has fought for acceptance her whole life, often with Robby as her only ally. She designs and makes her own clothes and checks the mailbox daily for an invitation to Fashion Institute in NYC. Then Francesca enters the story, a month from marrying her marine boyfriend, she’s looking for a little fun before settling into a life of a southern belle housewife. Ricky catches her eye and they develop a friendship that quickly blossoms into sexual experimentation. BOY MEETS GIRL perfectly plays against our expectations, while still delivering a beautiful and satisfying romantic comedy. As we are pulled between which couple we want to get together, it’s a great reminder of just how complicated love is, no matter the participants. And when it does tie up, it proves how simple this strong emotion is at its core.

Schaeffer’s film defies easy characterization, but is still something that anyone can enjoy. Although it was the highlight of an LGBT festival for me, it is the kind of film that I wish everyone would see. It’s non-confrontational, despite tackling some pretty intense gender and identity issues. It’s a film that I think really opens a dialogue and helps people see each other as humans and not as statistics (or fear-mongering anecdotes from the lips of bigots). It can be hard to convince people who aren’t part of a particular niche audience to see what could easily be classified as a niche film, but this is one that is worth the effort. “That is the upside of the new landscape of independent film,” says writer/director Eric Schaeffer, “at a click of a button and a short call or email to our family and friends they can see a film like this. That’s the good news.” I had a chance to speak with Schaeffer a few days ago, as BOY MEETS GIRL debuted on VOD sites, and today the film becomes available on DVD.

Schaeffer has been making films for years, his highest profile one probably being IF LUCY FELL starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Ben Stiller, and Elle Macpherson. He also did a pair of films, separated by ten years, FALL and AFTER FALL, WINTER, in which he starred and which dived into to some pretty dark sexual territory. Though Schaeffer is a ‘straight guy’ making an LGBT film, he’s never shied away from material that covers the more difficult corners of sex and sexuality. “It’s actually thematically in keeping with my other films in that it’s a film about characters who are struggling and desiring to love who they love and be accepted for who they are,” he says, “while I’ve done that in cosmetic plot lines in the past, I wanted think of a new possibly fresh lense to look at these things through.” In doing that, Schaeffer decided that he wouldn’t be in this film, he would set it in the south, and he would make it about people in their twenties (which also prevented him from being in it – although he has a fun little two second cameo if you watch closely). “Making it about a transgender woman I thought would be a very unique and easy window for most audience members to get into a story about wanting to be accepted for who we are,” he continues, “unequivocally and without judgment or condemnation.”

This is one of the things that is so surprising and yet not surprising at all in the film. For the most part, Ricky is entirely accepted in town for who she is. This isn’t a film about her struggles, that’s already happened, its part of her identity and her past. This is a film about living day to day and how it affects other people. I love that she’s pretty well adjusted, and her problems are just problems everyone has. Schaeffer toys with the audience a bit by playing into what he labels a “cliché sort of construct in our vernacular for normal heterosexual romantic love stories and, beginning with that, you immediately begin start turning that parable on its ear. Hopefully in a good way.” And no one in the film is black and white. Even Francesca’s father, who is a die-hard tea party guy, has a really great moment of defending his daughter’s choices. “I’m interested in drawing really human characters, the human that we all know that we are,” Schaeffer says, “which is not one thing. We are a million things. We are at a turn generous, compassionate, caring and loving, and then selfish, myopic, and grumpy.” In general, he believes, we are loving to each other, as a human race, and hopefully our best moments are not few and far between. “Where we get in trouble as a society is when we brand people as witch or anoint them a saint based on a one or a few actions or thoughts,” he says, “we all know that we are very complex and very fluid, so to show the characters that would not be of our liking,’ and to show them having noble and compassionate moments, I think is honest and true. The same way to say that the entire South is made of bigots is patently untrue and in the same way to say that everyone who lives in the north are liberal and loving, it’s not true either.”

BOY MEETS GIRL hinges on a ground-breaking — and star-making performance — from Michelle Hendley. The film would really live and die by the strength of the role of Ricky, who is in practically every scene of the film and has the widest range of emotional roller coaster rides to take. “I was really hoping to find a transgender actress to play that part,” says Schaeffer, “but it was hard to find transgender actresses through traditional routes by calling casting directors and agents.” The director turned to the internet and researched transgender actress and eventually came across Hendley’s YouTube channel. “She was doing blogs about her life and she looked perfect and her personality was perfect,” he says, “she was in cosmetology school in Missouri and had never acted in her life, but she was very excited of the prospect of auditioning.” He auditioned her over Skype, and saw her obvious raw talent but knew she would have to do a lot of hard work to hone and craft that talent to be an actress in a lead role in a feature film. “I flew her to New York and worked on the script with her with other actors,” he says, “after six months, I felt confident that she would be as good as she ended up being.” During this time Schaeffer raised money, cast other characters, put the crew together and in general got the film ready to go into production. “From the beginning I had faith that my abilities as a director, with her work ethic and her natural talent,” he says, “I felt very confident that I was going to be able to get her to a place where she would get that good. I was just making sure.”

Ricky is another in a long line of very well-drawn female characters that Schaeffer has given us in his movies. In many ways the female characters end up being stronger and more aware of who they are than the male characters. So it’s an interesting choice in BOY MEETS GIRL, Schaeffer has a similarly strong female, and the film is actually about her being this strong female, even though her arrival at that strength is very different than the women in his other films. Her strength is really at the center of this film. “I can’t possibly tell a story about a woman as well as a woman could,” he says, perhaps falsely modest, “but in saying that, I certainly think I do ok with writing very strong female characters and it’s important to me to write strong female characters.” In fact, all the women in BOY MEETS GIRL are very strong, Francesca in her impossible corner in which she has found herself painted, and even her mother, perhaps the least likeable character in the film (by her actions). In the role of Francesca, Alexandra Turshen impressed me with her range, especially in relation to her great turn in Slamdance thriller BODY. Like Hendley, she is definitely an actress to watch. The men, though having to fight a little more with perception and belief, all come out the better for it, and Schaeffer manages to fill each role with tremendous conflict and depth. Michael Welch (Robby) you might recognize from the Twilight series of films or (as a much younger version of himself) in Joan of Arcadia. His bravado is the perfect mask to the sensitive side he displays with Ricky alone. “This film is almost more about the other characters that are cisgender,” he says, using the term that means essentially ‘not trangender,’ characters he says “are struggling more with breaking out of the confines that they have been put in by society and in term of how they are supposed to ‘behave’ and finding an acceptance.” The director takes these characters (the ones more easily identified with by most audience members) because they not transgendered, because they are heterosexual, and these are the characters actually struggling the most with the lack of personal acceptance. “Hopefully that will be an eye opener for the members in the audience who are represented by those groups,” he says.

Another eye-opener (for filmmakers mostly) is that the Kentucky-set film was shot in Vermont. “I did my research and made sure it could double well for it, which it did,” Schaeffer says, “when you’re making a low budget independent film you want to do everything you can to make it look beautiful technically, so I could shoot in southern Vermont on the budget I had and geographically approximate it to small town Kentucky really well.” It was important that the film be set in Kentucky, according to the director. “If the story was set in New York, LA or San Francisco, or even Austin or Atlanta, either a Southern place that is a big city, or a known to be liberal feeling accepting Southern town city,” he says, “it would be a much different story, perception wise.” He wanted a town that people would imagine would be difficult for a transgender girl growing up, if even to flip that stereotype around and use it against them. Also, he says, “it’s not true that in all small town America it’s just pervasive bigotry, that’s completely untrue,” and he wanted to show that as well.

With such a great film, I wondered if Schaeffer was ever (other than his cameo) jealous that he didn’t act in it as he usually does. “That’s a good question,” he says, “I really enjoy acting in my films. But I also really enjoy not acting in my films. While I think I feel comfortable with the end result of my performances in my films, it causes me anxiety to go through the actual process of acting. So when I’m not in certain scenes in films that I’m in or when it’s like this and not in the movie at all, it definitely is a lot easier. I can relax and don’t have an upset stomach all the time knowing that I have to be funny or good or romantic in a scene so it was actually really easy not to act in it. But then when I’ve done that I start to get a little jones for wanting to be in the next one.”

BOY MEETS GIRL is out now on VOD and on DVD. More information about the film (as well as streaming and downloading options) is available here.

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