At its heart, TEENAGE COCKTAIL is a love story, the story of two teens stuck in a small town who find each other and, for the first time, love. However, their method of escape, raising money through webcam modelling, sends them down a dangerous path and the love story quickly whirlwinds into a thriller. Annie (Nichole Bloom) has just moved to this town and has no friends, (although her mother would very much like to be her best friend). When Annie accidentally walks in on Jules (Fabianne Therese) dancing, and becomes mesmerized by her freedom, the two become instant friends… which quickly turns into something more in the privacy of their bedrooms. The two girls experience life to the fullest, experimenting with drugs, petty theft, and eventually webcam modelling. Jules proposes it as an easy way to put away money to move to New York City together, but they soon realize the further they go with each other, on camera, the more money they can earn. And when two male classmates discover their secret, images of them begin to circulate around the school. With a parents-principal meeting looming, the girls decide to act, and meet one of their biggest fans in person. They hope to earn enough cash all at once to escape this town. Of course, it does not go as planned.
Although the film is very in the now, with characters that could only exist today and pursuing their dreams in a way they could only do currently, the script had actually been around for several years. “My buddy Chris Sivertson wrote it long time ago,” says writer/director Carchietta, “actually, I think we tried to get it made with him directing awhile back.” Ten years later, the script was still on his mind, but Sivertson had moved on to other things. “I remember asking him are you ever gonna do that Teenage Cocktail script?” he remembers, “And he said, ‘Well, you always liked it, you should take a look at it if you want to do anything with it.’” The director realized that he still loved the idea, but had outgrown the exploitation of it. “Originally the girls turn to stripping, and that’s how they make their money to get away,” he says, “he said ‘Take it, rewrite it, from page one.’ So, I gotta thank him, big time, for that.” Early on, Carchietta came to the conclusion that he shouldn’t make a film about his own high school experience, even though he found great inspiration in the work of John Hughes and Amy Heckerling. “That stuff’s just way out of date,” he admits, “and then just by chance there was a lot of weird webcamming stuff in the news. I just started digging around in that and then it made sense and I took it from there.”
John Carchietta’s film never judges its characters. These are young people doing their best to deal with the circumstances of their life and the consequences of their love. The film, which begins as a sort of vivid almost nostalgic homage to first love, takes a dark turn about two-thirds of the way through, and there is no escape. Because the film takes the time to really set up these girls, we really fear for them and feel for them. The performances draw you in because their love feels so real. Frankly, I was surprised that the film was made by a man. “I’ve gotten a handful of those compliments, which means a lot,” the director says, “I think a lot of that, you can lend that to the girls. Their dynamic together is ridiculous – the first time I put them together face to face, it was instant.”
Part of Carchietta’s process included allowing the girls to experiment, nothing was set in stone. “They knew the script inside and out so they had a lot of freedom to just improvise on the day,” he says, “and I gave them the freedom to come to me and say, ‘You know, this isn’t how a girl would say this.’ So they helped tremendously.” The director says they came to him with notes almost daily, and, for the most part, he used them. “It was good to have them be comfortable with that,”
Casting the right girls was essential, of course. “It was really tough,” Carchietta says of the casting, “I felt like I was just seeing the same girl over and over again.” Although he admits that is just part of the method, he also knew he was looking for something special, not the ‘typical cardboard cutout of these girls.’ Nichole Bloom benefited from the difficult and lengthy casting process. “I was supposed to see Nichole and we couldn’t match up our schedules at all,” says the director, “And I’m not really big on having people read. I just want to meet people as a person.” For some reason, he and the actress just couldn’t get together. To be respectful, he decided he would at least get on the phone with her. “I wasn’t really expecting much, ‘cause I don’t really like talking on the phone in general,” he says, “I think we were on the phone for like two or three hours. I called her walking home from the store. I thought it was just gonna be like, a 15-minute thing, and then it turned into a two to three-hour call. I was like, ‘Oh, where do you live?’ She lived 10-15 minutes from me, which made it even more absurd that we couldn’t hook up. Because everything was just trying to be so official.” Carchietta and Bloom met the next day and it was instantly apparent she was the right one for the role.
Fabianne Therese, who plays the more experienced character of Jules, came on in a similar way. “I actually wanted to see her early on,” says the director, “and I think she just got lost in the mix with all the girls that we were seeing.” Later, when they still hadn’t found anyone, he checked with the producers about if she had ever responded, and it turned out she had never even received the script. “She was in Nicaragua at the time,” he says, “and we sent her the script there, which was perfect, because she sent me a photo of her on a hammock in the jungle with the script.” And of course, she also ended up living a mere ten minutes from Carchietta, so when she got back, they also had an epic conversation about the film and the characters. “I put those two together and it was like an instant friendship and chemistry right then and there,” he says, “it was like turning on a switch.”
Because the film was shot in a mere 17 days, banging out 8-9 pages a day, this kind of ‘instant-on’ the actresses could hit was extremely helpful. There was no time for rehearsal. But despite the limitations, TEENAGE COCKTAIL does not feel at all like a small film. It is very open, with lots of locations and short, quick scenes with forward drive. Even the interior scenes in the homes of the girls feel fresh and vital at each turn. “A lot of that’s just cinematography,” says Carchietta, “everyone came knowing that we didn’t have a lot of money, but everyone was psyched on the script.” And the secret to that kind of commitment? “I tried to bring as many friends as I could onto the show,” he says.
Although the film never preaches, the wheels of the plot spin on a very loaded topic, technology and today’s youth. “It’s sketchy but at the same time fascinating, you know what I mean?” says the director about teens and their devices, “I feel real lucky that my generation grew up without any of that. But at the same time we were young enough to be in the forefront of all of it.” TEENAGE COCKTAIL is not just about webcamming, it’s about using all these tools on whatever paths they may lead you down, without the experience and moral understanding to realize the destruction you leave in your wake. “It just freaks me out when I see like, 13 year-olds with a cellphone, ‘cause I’m just like, “What are they doing with it?”” asks Carchietta, “the information is at your fingertips, anything that you want, but at the same time, it’s clearly dangerous. It can just be used for the wrong thing or just taken the wrong way.”
The most problematic consequence has become our inability to communicate with each other face to face. “I have a handful of friends who are high school teachers,” the director says, “and they get reports that are written like text messages. They write just the letter ‘u’ for the word ‘you’ and then they try to present that [as homework].” The students can’t even understand what the teachers mean when they say they can’t write in this manner. “They’re like, ‘No, no, it says ‘u’ – they legitimately don’t understand,” he says, “I have no idea what society will be like, 10, 20 – what the youth will be like in 10-20 years.”
With all this technology everywhere, it is not surprising that some of the strongest moments of TEENAGE COCKTAIL are physical ones, including my personal favorite, Annie’s unspoken goodbye with her mother, which is just a long hug. They’ve had no communication throughout the film at all and they’re still having no communication but it’s just such a powerful moment. And with Annie and Jules, their relationship is very natural and very much about the physical space. “It’s also that teenage bubble that you’re in,” says Carchietta, “nothing really gets in their little bubble and they’re not concerned with what happens five minutes from now or five days.”
TEENAGE COCKTAIL premiered at SXSW and has one more screening (tonight at 10 pm) before the end of the festival. It is a fantastic find by the SXSW programming team, being a fantastic narrative that feels fresh and edgy and also dealing with technology and how it affects our lives to really draw together that convergence of programming with SXSW Interactive.