When La Cañada actor Michael Gross read the script for the short film “Our Father,” he was hooked.
Somewhat of an experimental and emotionally charged concept, the story takes place in a single room and has just two characters — father John, a man struggling with advanced dementia, and his son, Jared, who is trying to overcome the void in their estrangement to be his primary caregiver.
The plot hinges around the sudden revelation of long-held secrets that cast a penetrating light on John’s anger and offer Jared a chance to forgive all that kept them apart for so long.
The script evoked a personal response from Gross, who was reminded of the challenges and triumphs he faced with wife Elza as the couple cared for her ailing mother in the last 10 years of her life.
“I loved it from the very beginning. Because the connection was personal,” he said of the script in a recent interview. “I lived this life. I’ve been there. And I find it fascinating.”
“Our Father” has been recognized at several film festivals since its release in September, including the Laughlin International Film Festival in October, where it won awards for Best Cinematic Achievement and Best Lead Actor for Gross’ portrayal of John.
Local audiences can catch the film on Feb. 12, when it comes to Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena as part of the Pasadena International Film Festival. Gross, filmmaker Linda Palmer and the rest of the cast plan to attend the event.
Those involved with “Our Father” say the film has garnered praise from audience members, especially those who have a personal connection to Alzheimer’s or dementia. Palmer said she based the screenplay on her brother’s experience becoming the caregiver of their own estranged father, and discussed with family members how to portray the story in a way that would be identifiable.
“I felt like it was a story that needed to be told,” she said. “So many people are dealing with family, parents or partners who have dementia. It really is a universal idea.”
For Gross, the four-day filming process brought to vivid life recollections of the time he spent caring for his mother-in-law, Katharine McNamara, who died in 2012 at age 101.
In her youth, McNamara was a notable dancer, who performed with a renowned dance troupe at the Hollywood Bowl in the 1930s. But by the time she’d reached her 90s, Gross recalls, signs that her mental state was deteriorating became apparent, as did the reality that her condition would require a higher level of care.
Undaunted, Gross and his wife accepted caregiver roles, not knowing where it would take them or how long it would last. He recalled that period in his life as, at times, surreal, when emotions swung from helplessness to anger and from joy to sorrow.
“It’s a blend of frustration, and you’re doing the honorable thing, and it’s a privilege and it’s hilarious,” he shared. “But it’s also like, when is this going to stop?”
He said caregiving forced him to draw on his actor’s ability to improvise his way through situations in which rationalization wouldn’t work. The idea of taking on the role of someone with dementia — and acting on the other side of the caregiving dynamic — naturally appealed to him.
Michael Worth, who played the role of the son, Jared, said he was amazed at how well Gross embodied the bitter, angry character of John and was impressed by the intensity of the filming process.
“It was really interesting to see him as vulnerable as he was,” said Worth, who mostly filmed one-on-one with Gross in an actual bathroom, not a set. “Being with somebody like Michael, you can’t help but feel you’re in the moment.”
Palmer said she was pleased with the emotion Gross brought to the character, and also what he helped contribute to the role of Jared, born from his own caregiving experience.
“He suggested early on that he felt like the son needed to have more of a growth,” Palmer recalled. “Before, (Jared) came across as an even character. But what Michael Worth portrays is a son who is having a really tough time being in the situation he’s in and finding a little bit of empathy for his father.”
Gross acknowledged that the story in “Our Father” truly belongs to the son, as it showcases the journey caregivers take through the unexplored, often fraught, territories of the human heart and mind. It’s a journey he said he will never forget.
“My role in the piece is an homage to Mom,” he said. “She was a nice lady. She did not make my life miserable — she enhanced our lives in so many ways.”
“Our Father” appears at the 2nd annual Pasadena International Film Festival, Feb. 12 in Block 6, from 3:10 to 5:10 p.m. To order daily passes, visit https://www.pasadenafilmfestival.org. For more on Michael Gross, visit https://www.facebook.com/ActorMichaelGross.