Friday, April 3, 2009

Film feature: 'Bart Got a Room' partly a celebration of South Florida

William H. Macy and Steven Kaplan in Bart Got a Room.

By Hap Erstein

South Floridian Brian Hecker’s debut film Bart Got a Room, about a loser high school senior’s quest for a prom date, is, unfortunately for Hecker, highly autobiographical.

“It’s definitely based on my pathetic existence growing up in Florida, for sure,” he says. Like the main character, Danny Stein (played by Steven Kaplan), “my parents were divorced, they would drag me on all of their dates. It was incredibly embarrassing and uncomfortable. I stretch it for comedic purposes, of course, but I really take a microscope over the details to show as much misery and pain as possible. As much as can fit into an 80-minute movie.”

Writer-director Hecker grew up in Hollywood, and much of Bart Got a Room was shot at his alma mater, Hollywood High. But when he needed a lot of students for the climactic prom scene, it was West Palm Beach’s G-STAR School of the Arts that came to his rescue.

“We were desperate. Weeks before shooting, we could not find a school that would help us get kids for our prom scene,” recalls Hecker. “We had to shoot it during the week due to William H. Macy’s schedule. We did not have the budget to pay 150 kids, professional actors, so we were dependent on kids from the school system. It was just very hard to convince the principal that this was an educational experience. We tried, believe me.”

Then someone mentioned to him G-STAR, the high school of the arts with an emphasis on film production. “We made a call and (founder) Greg Hauptner was so cool,” gushes Hecker. “Not only did he provide a bus and transported all of these kids to Hollywood, Florida, to a tux shop to get fitted for tuxedoes, but he also provided transportation and chaperones for 150 kids to come down to the Weston Bonaventure (Hotel) and shoot the prom scene all day long.

“And then there were a couple of times that we couldn’t find someone for a particular part and we asked Greg if he could help us. The next thing you know, they set up their own casting session. Before you know it, I got a tape from them showing me 25 to 35 kids reading for a particular part.”

It is cooperation like that that allowed Hecker to make Bart Got a Room for a mere $2 million. And with a cast that includes Macy and Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) as Danny’s divorced parents, as well as such other recognizable names as Jennifer Tilly, Dinah Manoff (Empty Nest) and Jon Polito.

Once Macy said “yes” to Hecker, it gave the movie instant credibility that brought in the rest of the cast. “He’s the coolest guy on earth, very, very humble and helpful,” says Hecker. “It was such a thrill. Once he signed onboard, everything fell into place."

He concedes that a movie about teenage life that culminates at the prom is not the most original idea ever filmed, but Hecker wanted to give this familiar territory a distinctive spin.

“I approached this movie thinking ‘John Hughes with a Woody Allen flair,’ Woody Allen has never made a teen movie, but how would he sort of approach it? I definitely wanted it to be character-based, as opposed to a silly, sophomoric teen movie.”

In addition to Hecker’s surprisingly mature comic sensibility, that meant -- sorry, kids -- no bodily fluids jokes and no strong language for shock’s sake. “No, you don’t need that stuff,” he says. “I mean, if you look at a lot of John Hughes movie or Risky Business, it’s really character-oriented and it becomes timeless because it’s really about human emotions, as opposed to going for the pratfalls or the jokes.”

Bart Got a Room opens today In New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and South Florida, including the Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton.

Area filmgoers should appreciate the local flavor, and you know that the G-STAR kids will come out to see themselves on opening weekend. “My producers were begging me to shoot this in New York and I spent months working on these e-mail campaigns talking about my love for South Florida, why it had to be shot in South Florida,” says Hecker. “The culture of that environment has rarely been seen on film.

"This is my way of putting South Florida on the map, front and center. So I want all South Floridians to see this and celebrate where they came from, because ultimately South Florida is as cool and as hip as it deserves.”

* * *

The Bart of Bart Got a Room is not the low-budget comedy’s main character but a largely unseen dweeb who has somehow scored a hotel room, the Holy Grail of prom night.

And it is that off-center sense of humor from writer-director Brian Hecker that keeps the movie from drowning in the clichés of high school awkwardness. Yes, you will feel like you’ve been here before, but the screenplay and an impressive cast makes it a nostalgic trip worth taking again.

A room would be great, but first Danny Stein (a sublimely awkward and angst-ridden Steven Kaplan) needs to find a date. And that’s about it for plot, as Danny makes a succession of socially inept moves, all the while not seeing the obvious, his longtime platonic pal Camille (comely Alia Shawkat of TV’s Arrested Development), the perfect date. Again, no points for originality, yet the device works as an homage to the inevitable.

Less familiar is the dynamic with Danny’s divorced parents, played by William H. Macy and Cheryl Hines, separated long enough that they have begun the comic agonies of dating again. And for the sake of his approval, they feel the need to have Danny along as they show that romantic incompetence may be genetic.

The core of the movie is the relationship between Macy and Kaplan, with well-meaning dad giving his son some truly dreadful dating advice. Eventually, events get a bit outlandish, as Macy, through sheer desperation, hires a hooker as Danny’s prom date. But director Hecker’s sweet sincerity almost sells this wrong turn.

Bart Got a Room seems unlikely to make much of a dent in the national box office, with popular junk like Fast and the Furious 3 elbowing it out of contention. But Hecker’s talent is evident and this first effort after film school makes a brash calling card for what may turn into a career worth keeping an eye on.

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