It's not easy being a teenager.
While they may be young, their struggles are as profound as anyone's. They can suffer from the sudden, numbing loss of a loved one to suicide or drug use, or be tormented by mental illness. They can be abandoned by those who are supposed to love them most, and sometimes, they can simply find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
These and other everyday teen tragedies are the subjects of a new educational film written and directed by Richmond Avenue School teacher Devan Blackwell. On May 28, Blackwell screened the film at Harrah's Casino and Resort.
The film, which Blackwell hopes will show struggling, lonely teens that they have a voice, was inspired by the director's childhood in Atlantic City and his observations as an inner-city teacher, he said.
"I was one of those kids," Blackwell said. "I felt like a kid who was potentially at risk. ... I can look back on that person and pull from those times, when I felt that way."
A portion of the proceeds from the screening totaling $750 was donated to Covenant House in Atlantic City.
The seeds of the idea that became the SPE@K Project were first sown several years ago, when Blackwell wrote a series of monologues from the perspectives of teenagers struggling with different issues.
Unsure how to present these stories, Blackwell set them aside until three years ago, when he decided to apply for a grant through the Atlantic City Education Foundation to weave them into a feature-length film.
The movie was filmed on location in Atlantic City last spring using a volunteer cast mostly of students from the Atlantic City area. Some Blackwell hand-picked from students he has taught over the years, and others auditioned through Atlantic City High School's theater program.
Blackwell personally asked 15-year-old Atlantic City High School sophomore Alexandra Gonzalez, whom he taught at Richmond Avenue in fifth grade, to play the lead role of Emma.
The film opens on Emma, a shy, socially awkward teen who finds solace in her boyfriend, Steven. When Steven, who is relentlessly bullied, kills himself, she struggles to make sense of the situation and remain upbeat.
Alexandra, who herself has battled depression, said she hopes the film encourages other teens to push through the difficult times.
"I hope it helps people out, people dealing with (my character's boyfriend) Steven's kind of situation," she said. "After seeing this movie, (I hope) they're like, 'I need to talk to somebody. I don't want to end up like that.'"
Following the screening, Blackwell invited the main cast members up on stage for a Q&A session with the appreciative audience.
Atlantic City High School sophomore Eric Haney drew praise from audience members for his portrayal of student Lucas, whose anxieties make even simple tasks a challenge. Eric, who based his portrayal off the mannerisms of a mentally ill family member who died last year, said he was glad to be part of the project.
"It just seemeed like a good message," Eric said. "It made me feel good, it was something I could do and it felt really nice."
With buzz about the movie growing in the local film and educational community, Blackwell said he hopes to take the film on tour at festivals and schools under the banner of his youth empowerment initiative, Be Unlimited.
After the screening, several kids and teens in the audience approached Blackwell, expressing interest in taking part in a future film. While he's unsure what he plans to do next, Blackwell said he's excited at the prospect of giving more kids a voice.
"So many kids came up, kids leaving, asking, 'When's the next film? Can I be in it? Can I do something?'" Blackwell said. "It goes across the board. Kids, they just want to get something out, and I'm just happy to be able to help."
Teachers or groups interested in showing the film can contact Blackwell at devan@beunltd.
com. For more information, visit beunltd.com.
Contact Braden Campbell: