The Graduates

Writer and Director Ryan Gielen calls his film The Graduates, “a love letter to Ocean City,” but it could just as easily be a love letter to that month in everyone’s life when they don’t know whether they’re still in high school or already in college. That adolescent Purgatory can be a difficult subject, but Gielen and company handle the keg-fueled endless summer celebration and ennui with a capable eye and less than $100,000.

The crew of usual suspects is headed down to Ocean City, Maryland for the grand tradition of Senior Week. Ben (Rob Bradford) has his sights set on the beautifully unattainable Annie (Stephanie Lynn). Andy (Blake Merriman) spends most of his time waxing obsequious to his girlfriend. Nickie (Mike Pennacchio) can’t control his temper, and Mattie (Nick Vergara) seems to have it all figured out. Through a mind-altering slew of parties and mornings after, each character tries to figure out their lives and relationships, but realizes they have a lot more learning to do.

I have a great love of high school movies. I also realize that for every thirty that get produced, only a handful are solid. The Graduates is one of the good ones.

It’s a hard genre after all. Nothing that dramatic has happened, yet every situation is treated as the end of the world. Widsom is severely lacking as are fresh characters. Basically, portraying high school kids as your main subjects is a lose-lose situation: either you use the stereotypes and have a boring movie or you break the mold and have an unrealistic one. The Graduates manages to walk a thin line of keeping things interesting but within a natural, realistic scope.

The dialog flows easily off the page, and the actors do a strong job of making everything look natural. Rob Bradford is good as the main protagonist as is Stephanie Lynn as the uber-bitchy object of lust, but the real stand out of the crowd is Nick Vergara who looks like he’d be equally at home acting next to Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt as he is with a cast of unknowns. Part of it is his character’s nonchalant control of every situation, but Vergara has an air about him that could propel him to much larger projects.

You won’t go through The Graduates without being reminded of American Pie, but there’s a more rustic quality about the former – like an art house version with no Stiffler. Plus, it gives us the signal girls make when they are totally, absolutely down for hooking up: sliding their hair behind their ear. Whether or not it works, the way it’s presented in the movie and how it’s used throughout gives the audience a very memorable souvenir meme to argue over on the trip home.

I got a chance to speak with Ryan Gielen about his film in a quick Q and A. The young director already has two awards under his belt for his short “Deleted Scenes,” and hooked me up with a few minutes while on the road promoting his latest. Regarding that promotion, Gielen said that they were whittling down the list of festivals they wanted to enter and heading out on that time-tested route.

Overall, though, his method is to create a grassroots movement by having free screenings up along the East Coast. How do you get in on this? Head over to their website and sign up for the email list. You can also check out over four minutes of the opening sequence to whet your appetite for more.

Gielen is also working hard to promote the soundtrack to the movie, which features a ton of indie bands from New York, and I’m sure if you ask real nicely, they’ll be able to sell you one of the bootleg versions they’ve made. The bands are all, as Gielen puts it, “music versions of [the] filmmakers and actors – very talented, but undiscovered.”

I can personally attest, as a lifelong music snob, that the bands featured are really incredible – all attaining that Lost Summer vibe so ingrained in the nostalgia of adolescence. Which is really what The Graduates is all about. I would definitely encourage you to hop on over to the website for more information and to see if they might be coming to your neck of the woods with a free screening any time soon. Otherwise, be on the lookout at festivals for this great indie flick.

Grade: B+


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