Embrace change or rage against it?
That’s the question at the heart of Chapman University graduate Kendall Goldberg’s first feature film, “When Jeff Tried to Save the World.”
The movie starring Jon Heder — who played an awkward teen in the cult film “Napoleon Dynamite” — will make its West Coast premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival on Friday and May 2.
The dramedy follows Jeff (Heder) who learns the bowling alley he manages is being sold. He does everything he can to save the place he’s come to call home.
“This movie is about Jeff’s world,” Heder said by phone. “This is his world that he has created and he’s found a comfort zone. He’s important there. He would be lost without the bowling alley.”
While revolting against the disintegration of all that’s familiar to him, Jeff comes to learn a vital lesson.
“He’s been living this life where he has fallen into routine and comfort but he learns to accept change,” Heder said.
The film has been five years in the making.
Goldberg, 22, of Los Angeles co-wrote the script with collaborator Rachel Borgo while attending film school at Chapman University.
The idea for the story spawned from work environments.
“I am usually inspired by locations, the people who work in those places and what their routine is,” Goldberg said. “I don’t really have a connection to bowling. I just wanted to make a movie in a bowling alley — it’s as simple as that.”
Since Borgo was attending school elsewhere, she and Goldberg communicated through Skype while writing the script.
Along the way, the film developed a theme about resistance to change, which was influenced by Goldberg’s sentiments at the time.
“It formed into a story of me projecting my fears and insecurities into the vessel of Jeff about the way life can change very quickly without notice,” Goldberg said.
The bowling alley served as an apt backdrop for the story considering its nostalgic symbology.
Famed bowling movies like “The Big Lebowski” didn’t heavily influence Goldberg, as she referenced underdog films like “The Way Way Back” and “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” which is about a ragtag crew of social misfits attempting to save their gym from corporate takeover.
Heder was drawn to the character because Jeff mirrored many of his own traits.
“He’s a very subdued person with a quiet nervousness about him throughout the film — I have certainly had a lot of those moments in my life,” Heder said.
Heder also pointed out that the character contrasts with the iconic Napoleon Dynamite.
“I loved Napoleon, but at the same time, I think people will enjoy seeing something different,” Heder said. “I have enjoyed seeing some of my favorite actors who are known for certain characters do something different.”
When Heder read for the part of Jeff about three years ago, Goldberg instantly knew he was fit for the role.
Unfortunately, like many independent films, there was a deficit of funding at the time — a hurdle not made any easier with a first-time feature filmmaker.
Heder and Goldberg kept in touch for years and eventually they decided to shoot a short of the film to try to attract some support.
The short premiered at the 2017 Sarasota Film Festival in Florida and was used to propel the project into a feature, which was filmed in August 2017 at Lan-Oak Lanes in Chicago, Goldberg’s hometown, just months after she graduated from Chapman.
Goldberg employed the help of Chapman film students during shooting.
Also starring in the film are Jim O’Heir (“Parks and Recreation”), Maya Erskine (“Man Seeking Woman”), Brendan Meyer (“The OA”), Anna Konkle (“Rosewood”) and Steve Berg (“Idiotsitter”).
Heder said he enjoyed working with Goldberg at the helm.
“I like working with first-time directors,” he said. “I find most of the time that they are easy to work with because they are much more collaborative.
“Kendall, being this very young filmmaker, had a vision and she wrote the script which I admired. I knew she knew what she wanted but would also be easy to work with. There was a lot of trust there and I enjoyed that.”
Goldberg said she’s excited to bring her first feature film to the area that served as an incubator for her film career.
“It’s really cool to have my premiere in the same county — a lot of Chapman people will be coming,” Goldberg said. “I had a great experience at Chapman. The film school is second to none. The way I was taught and the people I met, I credit part of my film for that.”
“When Jeff Tried to Save the World” will be screened at 8 p.m. April 27 at The Lot at 999 Newport Center Drive and again at 5 p.m. May 2 at Edwards Big Newport 6 at 300 Newport Center Drive. For more information, visit newportbeachfilmfest.com/event/when-jeff-tried-to-save-the-world.