By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, Calif.— One endearing aspect of Idyllwild’s film festival this year was watching a young family take Best of Festival, Audience Choice for a movie they’d made together. It was even more touching as the underlying story of their courage and commitment to the subject unfolded.
In After School, Adrian Moreira-Behrens portrays a victim of gang-related child prostitution who tries to rid himself of his unspeakable past. After gunfire is heard in the hallway of his school, the campus goes into lock down.
Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema awarded Adrian the Best Child Actor award for his performance. The movie also has won awards in Houston at Encuentro Mundial de Cine Latino and in Denver at the XicanIndie XVI film festival.
In an interview after the Idyllwild awards ceremony, Adrian said, “I hope that people will know the importance of children speaking up about abuse.”
After School was made by Adrian’s mom, veteran actress Yeniffer Behrens, as well as her life partner and business partner, Mauricio Mendoza, and producer DeWayne Cox, through their company True Form Films.
Mendoza and Behrens have individually accumulated many years of theater, movie, TV and commercial credits, including Old Globe Theatre San Diego performances and guest appearances on TV’s C.S.I. Crime Scene Investigation and General Hospital. They work in both the Latino and Anglo markets.
In After School, the couple co-produced and starred as a cop and a former guest teacher who had inspired Adrian’s character. Mendoza co-directed with Carlos Meléndez. Behrens’ and Mendoza’s daughter, Julianna , then age 11 months, appeared briefly on screen. Adrian’s father, Audomaro Moreira, was 2nd assistant director.
As they accepted their award onstage at The Rustic Theatre in Idyllwild, they all hugged and Adrian gave a concise statement of the rewards of moviemaking. “It makes my mom happy,” he said. The audience cheered and Behrens beamed.
Immediately following the awards, Behrens said in an interview, “It’s so wonderful being acknowledged by the audience. We feel so grateful and so blessed. We had so much passion for this subject. This says to me, ’Never give up.’”
Mendoza said in a later interview, “We want all our movies to have spiritual themes. We want people to be empowered, inspired. We’ve been in the industry a long time. What sells is violence, drama. There is a calling for faith-based stories but we’re going to spiritual cinema, not religious. We want broad appeal but we have to make it commercial to get people to watch. We want to teach communication. We are saying, ‘Parents, be careful who you let watch your kids.'”
Part of the inspiration for working as independent producers now, he said, is to create more roles and different roles for Latino actors, instead of the stereotypical service worker roles that Latinos are frequently offered.
Mendoza said he went to his close friend and writer Ruben Padilla to write the After School script. In video clip below, Padilla said he wrote it because, as an educator, he has seen children who need support.
“The script really touched our hearts,” Adrian said.
Adrian has been acting in commercials, TV shows and movies since he was 4 years old, he said.
He was 12 when his family made After School.
Mendoza said Adrian is a highly intelligent person who needed a challenging role.
“He’s an incredible talent. He’s a perfectionist. He just wants to get it,” Mendoza said. “Yeniffer wanted the movie to showcase him. We explained that to him.”
There are several scenes in the movie that imply violence and child abuse, without being graphic. The audience sees Adrian sobbing fearfully. We also see him carrying a gun at school in self-defense.
“He did those breakdown scenes in two or three shots each time,” Mendoza said. “We rehearsed a lot so he wouldn’t have to do it over and over again when we started shooting. We didn’t want to put him through that.”
They spent just two weeks shooting the movie in Los Angeles.
How does a child actor deal with that kind of intense subject?
Adrian said “it was tough.”
“My mom and everyone helped me,” he said. “I had a lot of emotional support. They all pushed me to my limit. It was a huge effort by everyone.”
Mendoza said, “Adrian had his family all around him. He always had a good friend on set with him every day too. We didn’t really know how it would work. There were days when Adrian just wanted to be home playing video games. We made sure he had his video games with him on set. We gave him breaks after his crying scenes in the movie to play his games, so he knew this is just acting, this isn’t real.”
“We’ve seen a lot of messed up people in this business,” Mendoza said. “We didn’t want to screw up our kids. We took him to Comic-Con (a comic convention) in San Diego for three days after filming and he had the time of his life.”
How does the family try to protect their children from adult situations they may encounter in the movie industry?
“I don’t think you can shelter them from the truth,” Mendoza said. “Life is hard. Yeniffer told Adrian that he is being of service. He will be a hero. He will make a difference.”
Adrian said he was in a movie at age 5 called Drive-By Chronicles: Sidewayz.
“I played Lil’ Sidewayz,” he said.
The movie is about a man trying to help his brother find a job instead of joining a gang.
Behrens and Mendoza met while doing a movie called Confession of a Gangster in Mexico.
“We learned we were both South American and we hit it off,” Mendoza said. “We had the same kind of agenda — to make a difference in the world. We were both working on bilingual projects at the time. We started producing together.
Mendoza said Yeniffer was born in Venezuela and raised in Miami. He was born in Davis, California and raised in Cartagena, Colombia. They’re now based in Los Angeles.
“I think, for Yeniffer and I, having the experience of living in two very different countries, it exposed us to so much more. It makes us see two sides in everything and, of course, our parents are very alike. They’ve taught us to think of others before our selves,” Mendoza said. “Yeniffer is pure love. She really does want to make a difference.”
Regarding the couple’s spiritual beliefs, Mendoza said, “Yeniffer likes to say she is all religions. We are imperfect beings trying to make sense of our day-to-day. If we all had more compassion for each other, more patience with each other and more love, imagine where we could be.”
What are the challenges of working as a family?
“It’s all a learning experience,” Mendoza said. “We have our moments. But when Yeniffer and I have artistic differences, I try to focus on the fact that she wants the same thing I want. We are both opinionated leaders. We try not to let the crew see our breakdowns. Everybody has breakdowns, whenever you are working with other people. You have to try to get your egos out of the way. The show must go on. Dewayne Cox is great at defusing the issues between us and balancing us.”
“Look at the film festival, as an example,” he said. “We got to do that together as a family and enjoy it.”
After the Idyllwild award ceremony, Behrens said in an interview that the honor was a validation for them as a family of movie makers.
Kenneth Castillo was the director of both movies Sidewayz and Confessions. He previously came to the Idyllwild festival with Counterpunch, in which Mendoza and Behrens were part of the cast.
Mendoza did part of his recent interview by phone after the family left Idyllwild, Julianna could be heard in the background wanting her “Papa.”
As for Adrian, where will he take his career now?
“Where the wind takes me,” he said. “I’ll keep auditioning. I have a great team supporting me.”