HERMON, Maine — It was a picture-perfect Columbus Day weekend, weatherwise. But instead of hanging out with their friends or taking end-of-the-season trips with their families, dozens of area high school students spent the weekend working on a project they hope will change the lives of teens struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.
On Sunday morning, about 30 teenage “extras” were milling around outside Hermon High School for the second day of filming for a new movie about teens and mental health. They were dressed for class. Some staggered under the weight of loaded backpacks, some cradled a few books in their arms, others sauntered about unburdened. Pastel-colored hair, nose rings, jeans, short skirts, flip-flops, work boots, attitude — a typical bunch of kids.
“Extras!” bellowed Camille Howard through her megaphone. “We’re going to be walking down the hallway, so can we please come inside and I’ll tell you what to do!” Howard is an assistant director of the movie project for the Portland-based nonprofit Project Aware, which along with The Acadia Hospital of Bangor, is co-producing the new film.
Following Howard’s instructions, the students obediently shuffled through the doors into the central hallway of the school. They spread out, prepared to push and jostle their way toward the library on cue, followed closely by a cameraman on a rolling dolly.
“The trick is to keep them looking natural but to have them pay attention to everything we tell them,” Howard said, watching the action. It typically takes seven or eight tries to get it right, she said.
Project Aware aims to empower young people through peer outreach, workshops and the sharing of personal stories. Other movies produced by the organization include Falling, Influenced, April’s Heart and Untold Stories, all dealing with teen-related issues such as substance abuse, bullying, sexual orientation, difficult home environments and more.
The new film, as yet unnamed, takes on the issue of mental health. Written and directed by 15-year-old Hermon High School sophomore Faith Bishop, it tells the stories of two teenage classmates struggling with their overwhelming responses to the world around them. One character, Allie, writes an anonymous blog expressing her profound sense of estrangement. When she is identified as the author, she is targeted for ridicule and rejection by her classmates, deepening her depression. The other main character, Christian, experiences anxiety and panic attacks, brought on in part by the fact that his older sister is serving as a soldier in a combat zone.
Bishop said she was encouraged to take on the project by her theater instructor.
“She knew I could write and thought it would be a good experience for me. And she was right,” she said. She started writing in June, with plenty of guidance and feedback from Acadia Hospital and Project Aware. By the middle of last month, the writing was finished.
Bishop said she knows something about depression, having dealt with it herself on and off as well as having friends who have experienced it.
“I know a lot of people would be surprised at the number of teenagers who struggle with depression,” she said. “I hope the movie will inspire people and let them know there is hope out there, that they’re not alone, that other people have struggled with similar issues.”
For 16-year-old Josh Devou of Levant, the opportunity to play the role of Christian came as a surprise. Devou signed up to work on sound production for the film, but somehow ended up in the lead role.
With no previous acting experience, Devou draws on his own personality to portray Christian’s problems. “I guess I’m the type that does not express my feelings a lot,” he said. When he’s under pressure, he has trouble sleeping and gets a little edgy and agitated. And, he added, his older sister has recently left home for college.
“It’s just weird. I grew up with her and now she’s not there,” he said.
Project Aware founder Carl Lakari said the organization’s goal is to encourage students to open up, express themselves, be accepting of others and seek support in appropriate ways.
“We live in such a fast-paced culture with many, many inputs and not a lot of opportunity for output,” he said during a break in the filming on Sunday. “Everything gets bottled up.”
Social networking sites like Facebook encourage superficial connections to others, he said, making it easy for cyberbullying to develop.
“If they really saw each other and talked to each other, they wouldn’t fall so easily into disrespect,” he said.
Acadia Hospital spokesman Alan Comeau didn’t want to give away too much of the plot or the ending. “Our goal is to address the stigma and to identify these as real issues,” he said. “The ending is not candy-coated, but it is a little hopeful.”
With funding from the Maine-based Bingham Foundation and Davis Family Foundation, as well as from the Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook, the movie is expected to be released as soon as December with premiere showings in Portland and Bangor. It will be distributed for free to every high school in the state, along with a suggested teaching curriculum and other resources for schools, families and other groups.