With a couple of big twists on the romantic-comedy genre, this gorgeous little film is almost impossible to resist. And that's precisely the point. With a topical theme, deeply likeable characters and some genuinely powerful ideas, the movie manages to be entertaining and provocative at the same time. Not only does it challenge the cultural bigotry we accept every day, but it encourages us to notice the important people all around us.
Set in Kentucky, the story centres on Ricky (Michelle Hendley), a young woman who still feels guilty over the death of her mother a decade earlier. She lives with her dad (Randall Newsome) and little brother (Joseph Ricci), and has a popular YouTube channel featuring her hand-made clothing designs. Her best pal is Robby (Michael Welch) who has stuck by her since they were 6 years old, and his friendship never wavered even as Ricky transitioned from a young boy into a teen girl. Yes, Ricky is transgender. And she's about to meet a neighbour, Francesca (Alexandra Turshen) who makes her look at herself in a very different way. And when Francesca's soldier fiance (Michael Galante) returns from Afghanistan, he sets in motion some important changes in all of their lives.
Writer-director Schaeffer maintains a lively rom-com vibe even though the film is essentially rather serious. The characters are genuinely hilarious, with barbed dialogue that refers knowingly to the absurdities of small town life, most notably the expectations people have that you'll get married and settle down to start a family. The film's sunny approach makes these pointed observations without ever turning too dark. For example, most people have accepted Ricky as part of the community, but that might be because many don't know about her identity issues. She's a beautiful young woman with a sharp sense of style and a snarky sense of humour.
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After a brief tease about a nationwide search for a new dog to play Benji, Leash skips down to Mississippi where malicious dog breeder Hatchett (Chris Kendrick) is overworking his prize pooch. How do we know Hatchett's evil? Well, beyond his wicked-sounding name, he actually hauls off and tosses one half-breed puppy across a room in an early scene. You can almost hear the boos and hisses from the target audience.
Continue reading: Benji: Off The Leash! Review
Take a look back at October's inaugural event.
The film is expected to continue without Mendes' involvement.