Filmmaking isn't typically a family business, unless your family name happens to be, say, Coppola. But then, Vermont residents Jennifer and Jonathan Corcoran are anything but typical filmmakers. They were raised in Italy. She was trained as a theater director. His background is in business and marketing.
The siblings have always loved movies, however, and harbored a fantasy of one day making them together. In 2011, they formed their Monkton-based independent company, Circeo Films, with the intention of focusing on women-centered films. Their debut collaboration, She Sings to the Stars, was conceived in 2010 when Jennifer decided the time had arrived to realize her dream. Not a goal or ambition. An actual dream.
"I was visited by the character of Mabel, the grandmother, in a dream," the writer-director recounted. "She was quite small, very old, sitting on the back of a wooden cart, spindly legs dangling. She said, 'It is time to sing the song. Listen. It will take four years.'"
Not your standard movie pitch, to say the least, but one in keeping with the spirit of this thoughtful, mystical film. Produced by Jonathan Corcoran, She Sings to the Stars tells the story of three disparate personalities whose paths cross one night in the New Mexico desert. New Mexico artist Fannie Loretto makes her screen debut in the role of Mabel, a Native American woman who lives alone, tending to her withering corn garden by day and communing with the vast, diamond-studded sky at night. Drought conditions cause her to depend on her grandson, Third, for her life-sustaining supply of bottled water.
The troubled young man, who's part Mexican, is played by actor Jesus Mayorga, whose credits include appearances on "Breaking Bad" and in the 2015 drug-war film Sicario. Jennifer Corcoran's script provides a study of a culture in transition. Mabel possesses an unshakable faith in the frequently supernatural beliefs and traditions of her Hopi ancestors. Third, by contrast, has been taught the same history but is pulled toward more superficial modern society. He dreams about moving to the city and making it big.
The film's primary themes are the nature of belief and the limitlessness of the world we inhabit. The movie asks viewers to consider whether they believe that anything is possible — a question that follows the closing credits.
"If I didn't believe anything is possible," Jennifer Corcoran explained, "I wouldn't have followed the inspiration to create this cycle of films about women with my brother. We have created separation between what we call magic or the 'impossible' and what we call reality where there is none. We knew this unequivocally as children. Indigenous cultures still know this."
Magic, in its most degraded and commodified form, is embodied by the picture's third character, a down-on-his-luck illusionist named Lyle. Larry Cedar — perhaps best known for his work as Leon in the hit HBO series "Deadwood" — is suitably seedy in the role. When his car breaks down on the way to a mall gig, he makes his way to Mabel's home in search of help. He finds it, though not in the form he expects, and fails to recognize his good fortune until late in the story.
The three spend the better part of the film getting to know one another, owing to a development that prevents Third and Lyle from returning to the road. Over several days, each gradually arrives at a deeper understanding and appreciation of the others' belief systems. This is, by design, the opposite of an action film. It's a movie about ideas that unfolds at an unhurried pace. Anyone who prefers philosophical exploration to Hollywood explosions is likely to find She Sings to the Stars a refreshing alternative to the usual cineplex fare.
Not that we aren't treated to a close encounter of the Hopi kind. A climactic sequence features a visitation by "star beings" — just one of numerous nuggets of little-known Native American lore on which Corcoran's script touches. (She also references a government relocation program that took place in the 1950s and remains conspicuously absent from American history textbooks.) The scene provides an arresting coda that one might have presumed would be beyond the filmmakers' budget.
"It was created in Albuquerque, N.M., with visual effects magician Fred Tepper," the director recalls. "Fred was a founding member of Steven Spielberg's visual effects studio, Amblin Imaging, the first completely CGI studio ever created for network television production."
The combination of indigenous perspective, otherworldly landscapes and compelling dialogue — along with the occasional spaceship — makes for a singularly satisfying viewing experience. That's reflected in the growing number of kudos She Sings has racked up since its debut at last year's Toronto Independent Film Festival. It took the award for best low-budget feature there and went on to win both the audience award and best actor prize (Cedar) at last fall's Vermont International Film Festival. On March 2, the sixth Queens World Film Festival (March 15 to 20) nominated She Sings in four categories: best actor (Cedar), best actress (Loretto), best cinematography (LA-based John DeFazio) and best director (Corcoran).
This month, Vermont audiences will have several chances to see She Sings to the Stars, not to mention to help its makers pay for that computer-generated spaceship and other costs associated with making, distributing and promoting the movie. Besides holding screenings in Vermont and New York, the Corcorans will try their hand at online fundraising on the movie-crowdfunding platform Seed&Spark.
The Corcorans hope to raise upwards of $50,000. That's not chump change. But they like their chances. And why not, for a movie with the message that anything is possible?
The original print version of this article was headlined "Sibling Filmmaking Team Explores the Magical Side of Everyday Life"
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