Arts, Features

BU alum conquers gender identity in Elvis Presley-inspired film

A short film written by a Boston University alumna will play in several upcoming film festivals. Writer and director Bonnie-Kathleen Discepolo combined their experiences from their days as an undergraduate to launch a career in acting and filmmaking.

“GraceLand,” a short film created by Boston University alumna Bonnie Kathleen Discepolo, follows a mother and her daughter Grace, who believes she is the reincarnation of Elvis Presley. COURTESY OF BONNIE KATHLEEN DISCEPOLO

“GraceLand,” released Aug. 10, is a narrative comedy short film that tells the story of Prissy, played by Anna Camp, and her daughter Grace, played by Katie Beth West. The picture-perfect family Prissy has spent years building comes to a halt when her daughter believes she is Elvis Presley’s reincarnation. The movie explores topics of gender, identity and acceptance as Prissy figures out how to respond to Grace’s behavior.

Discepolo, a former School of Theater and College of Communication student, said they learned a lot from their catered arts education at BU.

“While I was there, I started taking classes in COM in film, and I acted in a bunch of BU thesis films,” Discepolo said. “I sort of did it myself, and I, as a sophomore, went over there and started getting to know the filmmakers and taking my electives.”

Because the film zones in on transgender identity, Discepolo said they read books about being transgender and raising transgender children to prepare for the short. They also consulted with a professor, as well as with families who have transgender children, in attempts to ensure accurate representation.

Alongside co-writer Trevor Munson, Discepolo created the film’s premise by drawing on their experiences growing up in the South and in the culture of Graceland — Presley’s estate in Memphis, Tenn.

The stylistic components of the short were a creative aspect Discepolo said was integral to the film, because they wanted scenes to feel “magical.”

“All of the colors are really saturated with these hints of pink and blue and yellow,” Discepolo said. “I just wanted almost like a ‘Wizard of Oz’ technicolor to it, because it felt important to me that the production design represented that we’re not in the real world.”

While “GraceLand” deals with serious topics, Discepolo said they decided to use comedy to narrate the story, because humor can be a good medium for social commentary, especially for LGBTQ children who struggle with their identity.

“‘GraceLand’ is a fun, magical fairytale about being accepted,” Discepolo said, “and love, and a parent seeing their child who is different from them but getting behind them and loving them anyway.”

Discepolo, who had taken courses in acting and film production, said their time at BU was what eventually helped them create and direct a film like “GraceLand” that included well-known movie stars along with child actors.

Charles Merzbacher, director of COM’s film production programs, said working with child actors can be a “big challenge” for any director due to children’s time constraints and relative lack of acting experience.

“There’s certain directors who are very gifted at working with children,” Merzbacher said, “and I’ve watched them in action and I have a lot of respect for that, because it’s a real skill.”

When it comes to filmmaking at BU, Gerald Hinch, a sophomore studying Film and TV, said COM provides students a broad array of opportunities to develop industry skills.

“They have a lot of resources,” Hinch said. “Also, the way they give equipment to students to help with their productions.”

“GraceLand” was recently featured in Tall Grass Film Festival, Virginia Film Festival and SCAD Savannah Film Festival. Discepolo said they’re fortunate for the exposure despite the limitations of in-person experiences.

“I’m so excited to be in festivals,” Discepolo said. “The pandemic has been just so weird, and it’s so thrilling to finally be able to share the film.”

Merzbacher said it is a great achievement for students past and present to be able to display their own projects and films to an audience. She said she likes to tell her students film is a performing art just as ballet or playing an instrument is.

“No ballet dancer thinks that their career allows them to just dance in their bedroom,” Merzbacher said. “So, in the same way, it’s really important that our students get their work out there into the world.”

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