Florida Film Festival to Debut ‘Renee’ on Opening Night

Renee Yohe isn’t a household name. But she has a powerful life story — one depicted by the new film, “Renee,” which will be the opening-night film at the Florida Film Festival on April 13.

Shot in Orlando with a crew that included more than 40 Valencia College film students, the movie is only the second locally-produced film to earn opening-night status at the 10-day Florida Film Festival. The first was the 1999 movie, “Blair Witch Project,” a psychological horror film created by UCF and Valencia grads — a film that later went on to be a surprise hit at the Sundance Film Festival.

Valencia’s Ralph Clemente, director of the college’s film technology program, says “Renee” has potential to be a breakout hit, thanks to a cast of Hollywood stars, crisp writing and subject matter that has become a cause celebre in the music industry. “That film is going to make a lot of waves,” Clemente said. “It’s a very serious film.”

The film tells the story of a teen-aged Renee Yohe, who loved music and fairy tales – and found joy when she pulled on her headphones and imagined a life that ends happily ever after. But Renee couldn’t escape depression, and turned to drugs, alcohol and even self-mutilation to cope with the pain. Finally, in desperation, she reached out for help – and a circle of friends banded together to get her into drug rehab.

But first, she had to get the drugs out of her system.

The movie chronicles those five intense days when Renee (played by Kat Dennings of TV’s “2 Broke Girls”) tries to get clean and sober with the help of David McKenna, a recovering alcoholic and former addict, and surfer/musician Jamie Tworkowski, along with two of Renee’s high school friends.

That weeklong ordeal, which one producer described as “the ultimate random act of kindness,” moved Tworkowski to start a blog called “To Write Love on Her Arms.” The blog, which tries to help people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide, has touched teens and young adults — and launched a charity that has become a movement in the music industry.

In addition to Dennings, the script also attracted more big-name stars, including Friend (whose credits include “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Young Victoria”) who plays McKenna, and Chad Michael Murray (of TV’s “One Tree Hill”), who plays Tworkowski. Supporting actors include Corbin Bleu (“High School Musical”) and Mark Saul (“The Social Network,” “Grey’s Anatomy”).

Produced by McKenna, David Nixon and Cameron “Kim” Dawson, the movie is a departure from the faith-based films that Orlando veterans Nixon and Dawson have done in the past.  For Dawson, the movie “was nitty-gritty, hard street stuff,” but the message was so powerful that he felt compelled to produce the project.

With a $3.4 million budget, the film was shot primarily in downtown Orlando with a 70-member union crew and 43 students from Valencia’s film production program. The students tackled jobs that professionals usually handle, from payroll clerk to handling all the contracts and travel arrangements. Whether they were working in the sound department or with set decorators and prop masters, the students learned alongside the pros.

“The value of this is immeasurable,” Clemente said. “Not only did the pump more than $3 million into Orlando’s economy, it also benefited my students. They were working alongside professionals who became mentors and free faculty for me.”

And the students got to shine – and show off for potential employers. “We discovered diamonds in the rough,” Dawson said. “The kids in the program rose to the occasion and took advantage of the opportunities we gave them. The film business is all about work ethic and those kids worked really hard.”

Matt Whalen, a Valencia student, served as electric production assistant on the “Renee” set and discovered how much he liked the electrical end of the business. “My goal right now is to become a “best boy,” – the chief assistant of the lighting and electrical departments on a film – “and my ultimate goal is to become a director of photography or a gaffer” – the head of electrical equipment on a production,” said Whalen, 21.

Students outside the film program were recruited as extras for a number of scenes, including one musical festival scene that required 1,000 extras.

But it’s the message behind “Renee” that could speak to legions of teenagers, says Clemente, a member of the Directors Guild.  “I had no idea that cutting had become an epidemic,” said Clemente. “But this film deals with it straight on – using music and Renee’s story — and it tells her story powerfully.”

For tickets or more information on the Florida Film Festival, go to floridafilmfestival.com.