Bad weather on Sunday didn’t stop the Rolling Cinderblock tour from coming to Oberlin. Filmmakers Katherine Dohan, OC ’10, and Alana Stewart brought their film What I Love About Concrete to audiences at the Oberlin Public Library and the FAVA Gallery, where the planned outdoor screening was moved due to the rain. Stewart, Dohan and assistant director Brett Hanover are touring much of the country to screen their film, hoping to raise awareness and publicity for the independent production. After the screening, the filmmakers answered questions from the audience and talked about the filmmaking process.
What I Love About Concrete could be described as a surrealist film or a high school comedy, but at heart it is really a fairy tale. Molly Whuppie (played by Stewart’s sister Morgan), a junior in high school, wakes up one morning next to a dead swan, so she puts it in her backpack and brings it with her to school. When Molly lays an egg later that day, it’s clear that something strange is going on, and the stakes get even higher when the swan in her backpack turns out to be an injured teenage boy.
Molly’s struggle to deal with her supernatural problems mirror the anxieties of the college application process and adult life. As the film unfolds, Molly goes on a sort of quest involving an overbearing abstinence-only sex-ed class, a librarian who isn’t quite what she seems, a hilariously overcommitted science project partner and a beautiful essay about concrete written by Morgan Stewart.
The movie was shot in the filmmakers’ hometown of Memphis, TN, full of lush greenery and gorgeous decaying suburban landscapes and interiors. It is striking both aurally and visually; the film’s opening shots are supported by a remarkable soundscape, and the soundtrack is full of energetic and charming folk-pop music.
This is all the more impressive because Dohan and Stewart shot the film on a shoestring budget and with very little production support. They relied on family members and community actors to play the roles, while Hanover handled special effects and costuming and Dohan wrote original music for the soundtrack. It started as a summer project after Stewart and Dohan wrote the screenplay for What I Love About Concrete in 2007 based on a story by Hanover, but the filmmakers soon realized that it would take more time than they thought to finish the project, working on it each summer for the following several years.
The fairy-tale story of What I Love About Concrete is charming and creative, though unsatisfying at points — Molly faces an interesting dilemma, but an underdeveloped villain robs her of the ability to make her choice for much of the film. The “have your cake and eat it, too” quality that pervaded the ending caused the film to lose some of its thematic focus on choice and the problems we face in making the important ones.
Given the DIY nature of the project, it is understandable that the film is inconsistent — Morgan Stewart puts in an impressive performance, but the acting and dialogue can be awkward and stilted at times, especially when the temperature rises. What’s really surprising and impressive about the project is how well it compares to movies with much more expensive production values — the low-budget and creative special effects in the film support the story effectively, and much of the cinematography is top-notch. In the end, What I Love About Concrete is a quirky, lovable and often beautiful film and an impressive achievement for everyone involved.