Love Leads at NewFest NYC 2010

by Lorraine Mazza

blog layout & video by Amanda Vontobel

This movie literally fell into our laps.  A few weeks ago, Amanda happened to spot a mention of Leading Ladies on AfterEllen.  We both checked out the trailer, thought it looked cool, saw it would be playing at Newfest in NYC, and bought our tix.  Much to our delight, it was fantastic!

The tag line “let love lead” sums up the message of the film perfectly.  It applies to love of every kind…family, friends, couples.  As the story takes us through the lives of the Campari family, it shows us that all we have to do is open our hearts and minds to see what is right in front of us.  It really can be as simple as that.

The Campari family consists of Sheri (Melanie LaPatin), a lovable but overbearing stage mom who now lives vicariously through her two daughters Anastasia “Tasi” (Shannon Lea Smith), and Antoinette “Toni” (Laurel Vail).   Sheri has spent her life primping Tasi to perform on the Ballroom/Swing Dancing Competition circuit. While Toni also trained to dance, she remained out of the spotlight as the quiet one on the sidelines.  Although Toni serves as an apparent understudy to Tasi, she assumes the role willingly.  But wait…if you’re thinking you already can tell where the plot is going, you are probably wrong.  This is not a typical underdog rises up and takes the lead movie.  There is no veiled animosity that Toni holds for Tasi or their Mom.  Instead Toni is supportive, appreciative, and loving.   The same goes for Tasi toward Toni, and both of them toward their Mom.  Of course they sometimes lament about the crazy antics they endure with quirky Sheri as a Mom, but they fully embrace their family’s oddness.  Even Tasi’s dance partner Cedric (Benji Schwimmer) is practically part of the family, though he is more of a brother type than a suitor for Tasi.  Sheri hopes for the latter, but the problem is she seems to be the only one not to accept that Cedric is gay, no matter how many hilarious ways he tries to confirm this to her.   One night when Toni goes out dancing with Cedric, she meets Mona (Nicole Dionne) and they have an instant attraction.  This serves as the so-called “ah-hah” moment for Toni as things finally start to make sense for her.

To create the story, writer/director Erika Randall Beahm mixed elements of her own life with several of her friend’s lives to make up all the characters.  Also, writer Jennifer Bechtel wanted to make a positive gay/lesbian movie that could be accessible for younger gays and lesbians.   I found it refreshing to watch such a great a film that didn’t utilize any nudity, vulgar language, or drug use.  They also wanted the movie to transcend the constraints that labels puts on us and focus on love, not label.  Erika says in the Q&A that she was able to show the film at a private High School and the kids loved it, both straight and queer.  It is comforting to know that kids today are more accepting of being gay than any prior generation.  All the more reason that movies like this can be made, and will continue to help pave the way for the future.

And in continuing our a recurring theme on our blog, this film is also a great testament to the DIY vibe.  As Erika explains during the Q&A session, the film was made with “no money” and lots of cooperation from friends and supporters.  It seems the residents and local businesses of Champaign, IL were more than willing to offer their spaces for free to use in the movie.  Some of the music was performed in the film by Erika’s husband Daniel Beahm, who is a musician and also served as director/producer.  Shannon Lea Smith does her own singing during the hilarious supermarket dance routine.  Another interesting tidbit, actress Laurel Vail had no dancing skills whatsoever when she auditioned for the role.  But Benji felt she had the most passion and potential to learn to dance.  So with the help of Melanie skilled choreography teachings, she and Benji were able to transform Laurel into a graceful ballroom/swing dancer in no time.  Shannon also had to learn some basic techniques from Melanie and Benji.  When you see the film, you understand how impressive this is. 

For all this and more,  I think Leading Ladies delivers on every level.  It is as laugh out loud funny as it is warm and touching.  It has characters that are strong, positive, and supportive of each other.   That support seems to be as much off screen as on.  The cheers from the theater and comments on their Facebook page made it evident that this movie means a lot to all involved.   I sincerely hope it gets the attention it deserves and surpasses Erika’s vision of crossing over to all audiences.  A message as simple as “let love lead” surely needs to be heard loud and clear.