Love in Moreno Valley is a well-directed film from Steven Huffaker about two tenth graders who turn to high school as way to escape from their lives at home.
Directed by Huffaker from a screenplay he co-wrote with Jared Lively, the film stars Jack Seavor McDonald, Jaire Bowen, John Ennis, Suilma Rodriguez, Paul Tirado, Lili Soto, Brendon Small, Alem Sapp, and Chandler Murphy.
Tenth graders James Watson (McDonald) and Abraham Willis (Bowen) don’t have the best of situations at home. With Abraham, his parents aren’t really there and James’s dad, Randy (Ennis), can be a bit much on him, not to mention obsessed with fantasy baseball. James would rather play guitar in his bedroom than deal with his dad.
Once the school year begins, the two of them turn to life at Vista Christian High School as escapism more so than anything else. Abe’s behavior effects the two of them inside and out. It becomes so much that their behavior–more so Abe’s than James–at school is an issue for the principal, Ernesto Durante (Tirado), and punishment is on the horizon.
Huffaker and Lively, in their script, have wisely chosen to set the film in the Inland Empire and put it on screen much in the same way that Greta Gerwig chose to set her directorial debut, Lady Bird, in Sacramento. Most California set films are either in Los Angeles, Orange County, or San Francisco so setting the film in a city that isn’t LA was a solid idea from the get-go and plays to their advantage.
The other thing the film has going for it is that while it’s a movie starring teenagers, it doesn’t fall into using the well-worn cliches that are typical of teen films: proms, sex, and wild parties. American Pie set the bar so high on the teen movie genre so anyone also that approaches a teen movie has to bring a fresh take. Credit goes to Huffaker and Lively for not falling into that trap and for wanting to have an authentic feeling by also taking a chance on non-actors. It’s what helps make Love in Moreno Valley stand out from the likes of Mean Girls and the John Hughes films.
Huffaker’s direction of the film is what led to the Chicago Comedy Film Festival to award him as the best director for a feature film. Lively also doubles as the film’s composer–be sure to check out the film’s rocking theme on the official website.
Love in Moreno Valley screened over the weekend as an official selection of the Chicago Comedy Film Festival. A release date has not been announced.