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Still following the butterflies: Memorial film takes angelic spin on tragedy

To this day, I still refuse to use the purple heart emoji, and even hesitate to use the butterfly, because to me and so many friends from home, those symbols are a memorial to Alyssa Gelfand: a 17-year-old high schooler from Guilderland, New York who died in a car accident in 2017.

my true fairytale film
“My True Fairytale.” The film puts a touching spin on the legacy of director D. Mitry’s daughter Alyssa Gelfand, who died in a car accident in 2017 but always sought to spread positivity to others. ILLUSTRATION BY HANNAH YOSHINAGA/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

One of Alyssa’s closest friends refuses to listen to “Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean because the two of them sang it in the lunchroom the Friday before Alyssa died.

But Alyssa’s father couldn’t get the song “Fix You” by Coldplay out of his mind — convinced it was a sign from Alyssa — after it suddenly started playing while he was struggling to move his debut feature film’s screenplay forward.

“I realized that was a message from Alyssa,” said D. Mitry, the writer and director of the film “My True Fairytale.” The movie, which was released April 9, was inspired by his daughter and captures her untimely death in a heroic light.

Coldplay’s lyrics made their way into the film, after an argument between main character Angie Goodwin and her father, Dean.

“I can fix you,” Angie says in the film, “but you have to listen and do everything I say.”

Angie, played by Emma Kennedy, narrates at the beginning of the film that she always wanted to be a superhero in her “very own fairytale.” While a search party is looking for her after a car crash, she shows up in several people’s lives to help them — just as Alyssa always did for those around her.

“Her positive attitude throughout the whole movie and that she was trying to make everyone’s lives better, that’s literally how Alyssa was,” Alyssa’s friend Allison Rosa said. “She was always positive no matter what was going on in her own life, trying to make you happy.”

The crash happens within the first three minutes of the film, picking up where Alyssa’s life on Earth ended.

Our high school was supportive of its grieving students, and the Class of 2018 took initiative to honor Alyssa. The Wednesday after she died, we all dressed in purple and pinned on purple ribbons, which Rosa said she still keeps on her car keys.

The Class sold purple rubber wristbands, that read “Forever In Our Hearts” with two butterflies and Alyssa’s name, to fundraise for a scholarship that would go to a classmate studying at the college Alyssa wanted to attend: Syracuse University. Rosa still wears the bracelet nearly every day.

Mitry made an immediate effort to get to know Alyssa’s friends, Rosa said. A week or so after Alyssa’s services, he told them he wanted to make a film, Rosa added, and involved and updated them throughout the process.

Because Mitry lived on the West Coast while Alyssa lived with her grandparents, Rosa said it was important for him to meet her and Alyssa’s other friends.

“He had a good relationship with her, but he never really got to see the relationships that her friends had with her,” Rosa said. “I think it was good for us to tell him our stories about her at school and stuff like that, because it’s just a different perspective.”

Mitry said he wanted to create the story with Alyssa’s friends, and many of the film’s characters are inspired by them specifically.

Though I regretfully never knew Alyssa too well, I recognized certain quirks of hers I’d seen at school and in videos shared online that reflect how genuinely happy Alyssa was — the film highlights this, such as when Angie was jamming out in the car at the beginning of the movie.

Mitry said those resemblances happened “naturally.” He never told Kennedy to act a certain way, but instead gave her the creative freedom to “grow into that character.”

“When Emma walked into audition room, I just felt inside of me that this was it,” Mitry said. “When she read it … it was so much better than what I expected of the character itself, and from there on, it just grew and evolved.”

The other characters, too, displayed a true connection to the story and the loss of Angie. Mitry said he can’t envision any other actors playing these roles, and the “My True Fairytale” cast “told the story the right way.”

“They did their homework on this story, and they brought something of themselves with that homework on the set,” Mitry said. “Then it pretty much manifested itself.”

Having experienced first-hand the events surrounding Alyssa’s story, I found it hard to predict how an outside audience would perceive the film. While watching, I recalled things I’d heard, seen and felt during those times of our community’s grief. I understood the context and had known the film was in the works.

There are several heartfelt moments showing people coming together, sharing experiences and learning from one another, and pieces of these narratives are pulled together within the final 10 minutes of the film.

“My True Fairytale” is a cinematically beautiful, feel-good film that shows how everyone leaves an impact on others’ lives. Angie’s heart was set in her mission to support the people she loved — especially her dad, whose character grew significantly over the course of the film — to help them and to save her world.

Alyssa might not have seen herself in the positive light portrayed in her movie, Rosa said, adding that people often don’t tell others how much they are appreciated until it’s too late.

“I don’t know if she even knew how much of a positive impact she had left on other people,” Rosa said. “I don’t even know if she would even see herself in that movie.”

Mitry said “My True Fairytale” is a spiritual film about finding eternal connection.

“I’d like to think that that eternal connection is called love,” he said, “and that is what makes all of us superheroes.”

His relationship with Alyssa is stronger now, and he communicates with her every day, Mitry said. He said he believes she sends messages and guidance “from beyond the veil.”

“Alyssa is with us, and she’s guiding us,” Mitry said. “She’s asking us to be better people, because it’s our true fairytale.”

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