• Siennah Ortiz and Toni Torres in Marisol

      Siennah Ortiz and Toni Torres in Marisol

      Many Pasadenans might be familiar with the annual Hillsides Gala held every February at The Langham Huntington, a highlight on the social calendar. They might even be familiar with the work that the charity performs in our local area and at over 40 other sites throughout Los Angeles: providing outreach, transition services, an educational center, mental health services and housing for foster and at-risk youth.

      By Melanie Hooks

      Marisol poster

      Marisol poster

      But thanks to producer/writer Xavier Ortiz and director Juan Escobedo’s film “Marisol,” Hillsides can now add ‘Academy Influencer’ to its resume. The agency, along with affiliate Bienvenidos, and a group of various local agencies and artists, recently gathered their pennies and helped Ortiz and Escobedo make a film about the kids they serve. The kinds of kids all too often without a voice.

      One in particular – Marisol – a real girl with an assumed name is the star. One whose story Escobedo first heard from a social worker, a girl who had suffered fatal burns after having her arms thrust into a boiling pot of water as punishment. A tale so common, Escobedo says, flinching, that the worker had even forgotten the real girl’s name.

      His years of arts outreach with Hillsides has convinced him that this story, like many others, need to be told. These children can be saved, he believes, if their caretakers can learn to handle their strongest emotions through the sorts of outreach and training that Hillsides provides. Often those parents and caretakers were the victims of abuse themselves. He hopes the film “might spark something inside someone to break the cycle.” To remind them that the rage of one moment can lead to terrible consequences.

      The film has set tongues wagging on this year’s festival circuit. Beautifully shot on the streets of East Los Angeles, it focuses on Marisol, who window gazes at beautiful quinceañara dresses she knows her mother can’t afford. Once she arrives home, we realize that her mother’s boyfriend is the bigger obstacle – resentful and controlling, he lashes out at them both for the smallest imagined slights, first verbally, then physically.

      What could be unbearably heavy material is lifted by young Siennah Ortiz’s portrayal of Marisol as a kind and bubbly dreamer, the sort of girl anyone would want to befriend, and the tenderness displayed by Toni Torres, who plays Marisol’s mother. The final scenes with her grandfather, who takes Marisol into his care, speak to more layers of love in the young girl’s life than hate, especially given Escobedo’s care to linger on the natural beauty of the garden and its connection between her and the deeply grounded abuelo, Alejandro Patiño.

      The magical realism-style short, just 17 minutes long, has been busy racking up awards: the Audience Award at the Oceanside Film Festival; Best Actress in a Short Film for Toni Torres, Playhouse West Film Festival and for Siennah Ortiz, Women’s International Film Festival; Best Dramatic Short Film, Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. It’s on its way to the New York Puerto Rican Film Festival and showing this weekend in downtown L.A. at the Panamanian International Film Festival (see below for details).

      On Marisol set (L-R) Siennah Ortiz, Director Juan Escobedo, Gersemy Martinez, and DP Alessandro Gentile

      On Marisol set (L-R) Siennah Ortiz, Director Juan Escobedo, Gersemy Martinez, and DP Alessandro Gentile

      But the biggest, most wonderful moment so far for Escobedo was the day he received an email from the Academy of Arts and Sciences, home of the Oscars and keeper of film’s cultural history. It was from the Margaret Herrick Library, and very politely asked if he would consider allowing them to induct the “Marisol” script into its permanent collection. He was floored.

      “I very carefully set my phone down,” he mimes, holding it at the corners with his thumbs, “and immediately forwarded it to every other account I have so I wouldn’t accidentally delete it.”

      Being inducted is no guarantee of official consideration for an Academy Best Short award, but the filmmakers have officially qualified and entered. So who knows? This coming February, some new toasts might made at the Langham Huntington.

      Catch “Marisol” this weekend! Sat., Oct 27th, Block 3, 6 p.m., Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 South Spring St. Tix: $7 at Eventbrite or onsite.   

      > Your school or social service agency can discuss a showing of “Marisol” by contacting the filmmakers via their site, www.marisolfilm.com.

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