Every year around this time the Newport Beach Film Festival brings together open-minded audiences eager for interesting new material with aspiring filmmakers who want their labors of love to be seen and appreciated.
Out of the entire weeklong festival, which begins Thursday, perhaps my favorite event is the Youth Film Showcase, which screens short films by moviemakers 18 years and younger. These films, like many of the young auteurs, can sometimes be a bit unpolished.
But they are always a revelation. They offer a peek at potential, a glimpse at promising young talent that might one day produce truly great art. Often working with budgets no greater than lunch money and casts and crew comprised of school friends and family members, these kids are able to produce nuggets of brilliance amid the amateurism that I always find a joy to behold.
Over the years I've noticed some recurring themes. There are usually a few earnest documentaries. This year, for instance, there are a couple of films about old bombs that litter the countryside in Laos, often leading to tragedy.
I've also seen more than a few sly takes on the horror genre, with zombies and vampires and the like. Other times there have been homages to classic film genres and television shows, such as an entry I saw years ago that was a clever spoof of TV's "House."
Many of the films inevitably deal with issues that resonate with kids. Bullying, insecurity and feelings of alienation are common threads.
The 14 films in this year's showcase were selected from 136 submissions, said Leslie Feibleman, director of special programs and community cinema for the festival. Among this latest crop of entries she noticed a willingness to "push the boundaries" with ideas and camera techniques.
"We select films that demonstrate originality, unique perspectives, strong artistic merit and technical skill," she said. "We program films that entertain and films that will appeal to teen audiences."
This year's showcase, possibly the best I've seen so far, is decidedly skewed to the serious-minded. Though just a few minutes long, they pack a punch. A few are thoughtful reflections on the cost of society's increasing reliance on technology. One beautifully acted and composed film, "Paradigm," brought me to tears with its depiction of children reacting to their parents' estrangement. Another features a boy struggling with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Another film, "City Limits," boasts sophisticated production values and an amazingly self-assured young cast, somehow capsulizing a young career woman's search for professional and romantic fulfillment in just 12 minutes.
I spoke with 18-year-old Corona del Mar High School senior Chris Beyrooty, whose film, "Unplugged," features a teenager increasingly isolated as his family and friends are mesmerized by their cell phones. One impressively choreographed scene shows the young man navigating a school corridor against a tide of classmates staring hypnotically at their phones.
"It follows his journey of trying to tell people there's more to life than what's in front of your face, than a cell phone," Beyrooty said. "There's a lot of beauty."
Getting that message across was no easy feat. Beyrooty had to round up a cast of more than 300, mostly other students. He had to secure access to film locations, including the CdM's campus. "It was time-consuming," he said. "But I knew it would be worth it."
Beyrooty's love of film began when he was 4 years old and his grandfather gave him his first camera. He credits his success to his parents, who have endured his hectic filming schedule and 2 a.m. editing sessions. He's also grateful to a couple of inspirational mentors — an elementary school creative writing teacher and the Associated Student Body adviser at CdM — for giving him support and encouragement to experiment and find his voice.
The ASB advisor was likely on the verge of kicking Beyrooty out of the class back in middle school "because I wasn't doing anything," he admitted. Then she agreed to let him try his hand at making videos. Now he produces all the videos shown at school rallies.
"She put no limits on my creativity," he said.
Beyrooty originally produced "Unplugged" for his film school application. It's long been his dream to attend USC's top-ranked cinema program. Indeed, he was so anxious about his application that on the day notifications were to arrive by snail mail in late March he stayed home from school and waylaid the postal truck when it appeared on his street.
At first, he didn't see the big yellow packet that would have signaled his acceptance. "I was freaking out," he said. Then suddenly, there it was. He was in.
"It was a big deal, a pretty emotional day," he said. "There were tears of joy and happiness."
Beyrooty hopes to one day make documentaries about conditions in Third World countries, and land work for a major production company.
He has the vision, the drive and the talent. Now, thanks to the Newport Beach Film Festival, he also has a start.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.
If You Go
What: Newport Beach Film Festival Youth Film Showcase followed by a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers
When: 2:30 p.m. April 26
Where: Island Cinema, 999 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach