Doug Helmick always wanted to escape.
It’s not that the 2009 Struthers High School grad had a bad life or upbringing.
That desire to escape, though, led to film- making at age 12 — with borrowed cameras and buddies as actors.
Over time, Helmick’s buddies got out of filmmaking.
Helmick got into it.
And this Friday, it’s a homecoming of sorts, as well as a new chance to escape.
Helmick graduated this week from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh with a degree in digital art and filmmaking.
He won best portfolio among his classmates, and the cornerstone of the work is his 22-minute film “Astro[not],” which he will showcase Friday night at The Lemon Grove. (Party starts around 8; film rolls at 9; music afterward.)
It’s easy to see why he earned “best of.” It’s a really cool film from its first seconds. It’s also at times dark and quirky. Helmick’s clear with this point:
The film’s manic character and his struggles are not reflective of his life.
“I have never felt like Jonathon Star [the main character]. I’m happy. I have a good family. My parents [Doug and Michele] went into debt for my college. Struthers has always been supportive.”
Struthers and many places around Youngstown actually play key roles in “Astro[not].”
“I’ve always shot all my work back in Ohio. Struthers officials let me shut a street down twice. We shot scenes at Selah restaurant. They donated food for the whole crew while we shot there.”
That kind of personal connection extends to his parents. Dad Doug helped build the film’s set in his backyard.
But the connection might be closest with the film’s star: Struthers High School teacher Richard Gage, who plays Jonathon Star. More importantly, Gage stars in life as Helmick’s first true film mentor.
“Mr. Gage!” exclaims Helmick when our discussion turns to the film’s star. Helmick said he still can’t stop calling him “Mr. Gage” after all these years. Helmick lists off his classes and activities that revolved around tutelage from Gage. And four years later, the student is the boss.
“In high school, he directed me. [In this film], I didn’t want to tell him what to do, but it was my job. We got amazing results. He’s so good,” Helmick said.
This is where I should expand a bit on the movie.
I imagine by now, you are adding up the following — young kid’s college project; dad helped build the set; the English teacher was the actor; and it was filmed at a place you can have lunch at tomorrow — and you’re thinking it’s a glorified home movie. I thought that.
We’ve all seen those bad “straight-to-cable” films that seem to be all HBO allows you to watch On-Demand.
These guys knocked it out of the park. This is a legit short, independent film.
Helmick’s talent in shooting, editing, sound and storytelling combine for a gripping package. Consider this Jonathon Star monologue:
“Ever since I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut. I just wanted to be where no one else was. I just wanted to be alone.
“My parents gave up on me at an early age. Which in return made me give up on myself.
“Somewhere out there in the universe, someone has to understand me.
“I can’t be the only one ...”
Living out those words, and perhaps one-upping his boss, is Gage.
Jonathon Star is a manic, paranoid, jittery, lost, lonesome soul parading around in an astronaut suit — a nerd who’d be living in his mom’s basement if she were alive in this film. Think of a serious, dark Jim Carrey character. Gage does not simply imitate Carrey-like tendencies; he rivals them.
The film was more than a year in the making, shot throughout the Valley: Backyard Bar and Grille, YM Camera, Selah, Spitler Road, an Austintown field and home in Struthers.
That it debuts Friday at Lemon Grove is perfect. Jacob Harver’s hub of humanity breeds new thinking and new action.
It’s a fitting place for a script that includes “Somewhere out there in the universe, someone has to understand me.” That’s Lemon Grove — where they like to live local, be loud about local, and launch local. It’s a perfect place to be Friday night.
I’m not sure, but I have to believe the Valley was not loud when Ed O’Neill, Nanette Lepore or Lawrence Brownlee (look him up ...) were wannabe twenty-somethings dreaming big. Who knew, right?
It’s too much and too early to brand that on Helmick.
Or is it? See for yourself Friday night.
PS: Or go to my blog on Vindy.com for a link to the trailer.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.