A Sort of Homecoming, Maria Burton’s fourth feature, is a moving indie coming of age tale set in the world of high school debate. The film premiered at the Omaha Film Festival last year, before going on to have a successful run, mostly on the U.S. festival circuit.

The film recounts the story of Amy, a New York news producer freelancing for CZN, who was convinced she had left her high school days behind. But, an unexpected return to her hometown in Louisiana requested by her high school debate coach, brings back memories of her senior year of high school. So, we follow, through a series of flashbacks, young Amy and her debate partner Nick on the highly competitive national debate circuit as they meet friends and competitors from high schools around the country and the college coaches who control important scholarships.

Penned by first-time writer Lynn Reed who also served as producer, A Sort of Homecoming delves into the somewhat peculiar and cinematically highly underused world of high school debate. While the subject matter is most certainly unique, it does, much like any coming of age story, focus on universal teenage themes and issues such as fitting in and the sense of belonging in the family, school or even the world. The film illustrates very well a dynamic and formidably competitive “sport” in which these teenagers have to face time constraint and present eloquently an argument that often involves improvisation, quick thinking and the possession of persuasive speech skills. But, A Sort of Homecoming is also a film for adults in its examination of loss, departure, letting go, moving on and reconciling with the past. By dealing head-on with these difficult topics, the film delivers an important message and a valuable life lesson: “Carpe Diem” and stop debating about life – but not only. It also shows the importance of spontaneity, impulsiveness, humanity and life in everything we do – even debate. That works thanks to Lynn Reed’s honest script that eschews stereotypes and provides the film with refreshing authenticity and rawness that mirror the aforementioned points. Furthermore, A Sort of Homecoming tackles as well the North vs. South and big city vs. small town dichotomy that has had a rather widespread presence in films like for instance Andy Tennant’s Sweet Home Alabama, in which the heroine escapes her small time life and past by moving to a big city where she has her dream job and life, only to go back to her hometown for a particular reason that triggers the story. And, this is exactly what happens here. For some reason, the Big Apple always seems to be the dream city everyone escapes to… Nonetheless, Lousiana does come off quite nicely here too thanks to Arlene Nelson’s crisp lensing. Additionally, the reference to Las Fallas is a charming and original touch that nimbly underpins the film’s central theme, later reinforced by the finale. A Sort of Homecoming is directed in a happy-go-luck manner that highlights and reflects exactly that.

The film boasts a new generation of actors but has the immense privilege of having Kathleen Wilhoite who gives yet again an outstanding turn. Laura Marano conveys very well Amy’ mélange of intelligence, talent and fragility. Hers is certainly a winning performance. In his, Parker Mack avoids melodrama and goes for authenticity. Katherine McNamara and Michelle Clunie deliver very solid performances as Rosa and adult Amy respectively.

As far as the music is concerned, Andrew Morgan Smith’s lively score of the typical Lousiana tunes (Creole, Dixieland Jazz, rural South…) has the perfect Southern feel that blends perfectly with the original songs written and performed by Cedric Wabon, Marc Broussard, Kathleen Wilhoite, Katherine McNamara among many others.

All in all, Maria Burton and Lynn Reed delicately and winningly use a part of high school seldom captured on the big screen in order to craft the charming and touching film that is A Sort of Homecoming. Variety is right; Maria Burton is definitely a director to watch. Debate over.

 

 

Production: Believe Entertainment, Coming Home Productions (USA 2015). Executive producer: Lynn Reed. Producers: Lynn Reed, Marcus Lyle Brown and Yvette Marie Brown. Supervising producer: Sean Rankin. Director: Maria Burton. Screenplay: Lynn Reed. Photography: Arlene Nelson. Music: Andrew Morgan Smith. Production Design: Jayme Bohn. Costume design: Sally Smith. Editing: Lai-San Ho and Susan Vaill.

Cast: Laura Marano (Young Amy), Katherine McNamara (Rosa), Kathleen Wilhoite (Annie), Michelle Clunie (Adult Amy), Parker Mack (Nick), Shayne Topp (Dylan), Wayne Pére (Adam), Dane Rhodes (Nolan), Jaqueline Fleming (Val), Lance E. Nichols (Hal), Lara Grice (Amy’s Mother), Ritchie Montgomery (Amy’s Father), Jim Gleason (Bill Tarrity), Ashlynn Ross (Melanie), Donna Duplantier (Tammy), Marcus Lyle Brown (Keith), Morganna May (Susan Levine), Rachel Whitman Groves (Bartender)

Color – 88 min. Premiere: 14-III-2015 (Omaha Film Festival)