When LeRon Lee watched the ending scene of the film “Juno”, where Ellen Page and Michael Cera are sitting on a porch playing guitar, he knew he needed to write a love story in an urban environment.
“I’m from Northern New Jersey, not very often do you see someone on their porch playing their guitar,” Lee said. “I felt a little jealous.”
Lee wanted to take similar characters and put them in a different setting to see how the world receives them, so he wrote the short feature film “Ugly” about the laws of attraction in an urban environment. He found inspiration through teaching where he could “see first hand what the issues are within a school.” A common theme he noticed was uniformity.
“We see kids that aren’t necessarily the tough guy try to put on this tough armor within these environments,” he said.
In “Ugly”, Lee portrays the story of Doug, a unique and nerdy kid in Newark who changes his individuality in order to impress a popular girl named Kaye.
The film has been accepted into Cannes Film Festival in France and Blackstar Film Festival among others, and was also a top five finalist in HBO’s Short Film Competition. It will screen August 7 at 4:20pm at the Pearlstein Gallery in Philadelphia.
To get the true feel of an urban film, Lee asked Derrick Williams, a Jersey City-raised producer, to help him. Williams, who graduated from Temple with a film degree in 1998, loved the “honesty” of the film and was eager to help Lee reach the film’s potential.
“There are not too many positive messages you hear that happen in Newark, so it was important to shoot there, right in our backyard,” Williams said.
Charles Jones, director of photography, got on board because “Ugly” shows a different side of African American teenagers who are typically criminalized in the media, as the lead actors and most of the cast are African American.
“No drugs, no guns, no violence, no disrespect to elders. It’s nothing out of the ordinary — and it’s real,” Jones said. “It has the potential of demonstrating a facet of our kids lives that people don’t often see.”
Lee is a “big fan of authenticity,” he said, so when looking for actors, he went to every school in Newark and dropped off flyers. “Having this big heart for the city, I just wanted to bring opportunities to people here and nurture their talent in a real way.”
Lee was teaching a program for kids with behavior problems and got the opportunity to put one of the students from the program in his film. “I had to chase them down, but it was important for me to say ‘hey, one of you will experience this’ and he appreciated it.” Lee wanted the film to be “as relatable as possible.”
For Lee, the audition is “how you walk in and approach me,” he said. He thought that Devon Moyd, who plays the lead role of Doug, was an “overall good person” which ultimately sold him.
Andrea Rachel was picked for the lead role of Kaye because she “embodied the character,” according to Williams.
Rachel describes her character as “the villain” of the story — someone who doesn’t care much about the feelings of others.
Though Rachel isn’t a mean person, she found it fun to “play a young person who wasn’t so innocent or so gullible,” she said.
Seeing a character like Doug in an urban environment and the measures he takes to try to adjust is eye opening. The struggle for teenagers to find themselves while trying to fit in is specifically challenging for kids in the city who are held up by stereotypes.
Doug is into comics, art and anime. In other words, he’s into “a lot of things that the boys and men in Newark aren’t,” Rachel said.
“Newark is looked at as as very urban or street,” Rachel added. “It’s fun to see someone like him, who has this other perspective on life, clash with the environment he’s in.”
“After watching this film, people will not only feel for the main character, but also look at themselves in the mirror,” Lee said. “We deal with insecurity, but we also deal with the outcome of it.”
Williams remembers Allan Barber, a professor in Temple’s School of Film, as an inspiration to him during his time at Temple.
“Williams represents a part of what we try to encourage in the department, in terms of what we call ‘backyard stories,’” Barber said. “In terms of racial depictions, ‘Ugly’ is presenting something truer to life than some of the media stereotypes about the inner city.”
“There’s a lot of us who are doing wonderful things and Temple isn’t aware of it. I’m going to try to use ‘Ugly’ as a platform to engage alumni and help the next class of graduates in regards to a connection — it’s very much needed,” Williams said.
Williams advice for current film students is to not let anyone “set the tone for your expectations,” he said. “You’re gonna hear ‘no’ a lot, you’re gonna get doors closed in your face, but don’t let that determine your destiny.”
Tsipora Hacker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.