Amy Wendel’s movie Benavides Born is one of those small surprises that we get only from from independent producers. It’s the story of Luz Garcia (Corinna Calderon), a senior in high school in rural Benavides, Texas, a predominately Mexican-American town where opportunity too often means joining the Army.
On one hand, the film feels like a number of small often melodramatic films about Latino families in dire straits, from La Bamba to La Mission. But unlike those films run through studio mills, Benavides skirts clichés. Consider Luz’s escape route—instead of popular music, boxing, or crime, she’s trying to get out of her farm field-encircled neighborhood through the unlikely means of women’s competitive power lifting, a sport you don’t often see celebrated in feature films. More importantly, however, the movie does not cater to genre expectations. Whether or not Luz wins the big state competitions is not the point, as this film isn’t about the joy of victory and the agony of defeat. Luz is living a world complicated by drugs, oppressive police, and deep anxieties; she doesn’t win her goal easy.
“It’s really about Plan B,” said Wendel, talking from a rented home near the Sundance festival where, last week, Benavides had its premiere to enthusiastic audiences. “Everybody has an A Plan, but if you really want to make it in the world, you usually need a Plan B.”
But Benavides is also the story of a town and that’s how Wendel came to it. “It began believe it or not with a report on 60 Minutes we saw back in 2004, about how small towns were mainly carrying the burden of the Iraqi War. This town of 4,000 had recently lost two soldiers,” she explained. Wendel and her husband, Santa Barbara-born Daniel Meisel began traveling to Benavides doing interviews and befriending people like the high school principal as well as some of the kids. “We didn’t want to place our own story on the town,” explained Wendel. “And the first girl I met was a power lifter.”
Wendel admits that lifting weights isn’t as naturally cinematic as, say, boxing or car racing, but it offered possibilities, both visual and metaphorical. “The girls’ faces I figured would sell the story,” she said, and she isn’t wrong. Wendel, who was born in Minnesota, came to Los Angeles with Teach America, ended up becoming a documentary maker in San Francisco (her first job was with Frontline), and met her husband while living in New York making short films that hit the festival circuit. Their collaboration allowed her time to develop the story beginning in 2007 and then make the film right, discovering things as they went along. A small series of interactions between high school students being regularly searched by police in school leaves you with as desolate a feeling for these downtrodden rural lives as does the rather desperate measures of lifting weights in order to finance college education. The research helped Wendel avoid a number of clichés, too, including the treatment of Luz’s brother who is deployed in Iraq.
Right now, Wendel and Meisel are celebrating though, after last Saturday’s Sundance premiere. “The Sundance people have been so supportive of this move, it’s so great. And then to have an opening,” she marveled. “Just getting in was amazing, I mean you have 1,100 films competing for six slots.”
They are equally excited about the SBIFF opening, which will be Tuesday, February 1 at 7p.m. at the Metro Theater. Their company has just relocated here, and the Wendel-Meisel family is learning to settle into Dan’s hometown, which isn’t far from Hollywood. “This is like hitting the bull’s eye with your first shot,” said Wendel, who has pledged herself to a career of telling stories like the weightlifters from Benavides. “It’s a great moment for us.”
Amy Wendel’s Benavides Born screens on Tuesday, February 1, 7 p.m., Wedesday, February 2, 1 p.m., and Thursday, February 3, 10:20 p.m. at the Metro 4. The schedule is subject to change, so see independent.com/sbiff for updates.