The opening moment of “Free Ride,” Friday night’s gripping curtain-raiser for the 28th annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, is quick to introduce the carefully calibrated tension to follow for the next 83 minutes. “Grass, gas or ass,” a voice intones, “nobody rides for free.”
The words, with their manipulative disdain for the vulnerable, are familiar bumper-sticker poetry, of course. But here they are given an added twist, tumbling matter-of-factly from the mouth of an innocent, the 7-year-old Shell, a character whose life in sunny 1970s Fort Lauderdale with her mother and sister is about to take a dark turn.
Adding to the apprehension is the knowledge that “Free Ride,” a film about the lengths to which a mother will go to care for her children, even running drugs at the height of South Florida’s smuggling heyday, is a true story. Shell grew up to be Shana Betz, who left Fort Lauderdale and eventually landed in Los Angeles, where she finished the script for her directorial debut with “Free Ride,” which stars Oscar winner Anna Paquin as Betz’s mother, Christina.
Betz, who grew up in Akron, Ohio, where her maternal grandmother lived, and was studying neuroscience at Kent State University 15 years ago when the acting bug bit her, says she had several goals with “Free Ride.”
“No one was writing roles about the people where I come from. Women weren’t housewives. They worked. Akron is a blue-collar town. There was a toughness missing in a lot of female roles,” she says.
The movie is also “a love letter to my sister,” Betz says of her sibling, known as MJ, then 15. “She took the brunt of my mother’s lifestyle. She was my caretaker. It’s an apology for all she went through.”
BLOOD AND PASSION
Best known for her Oscar-winning 1994 breakout “The Piano,” the superhero romps in the “X-Men” franchise and HBO’s vampire drama “True Blood,” Paquin is a revelation in “Free Ride” as a totally unprepared, but no less determined protector of two girls.
The film opens with Paquin’s Christina being strangled at the hands of an enraged boyfriend (“my mother had a bad habit of being abused in some way by everyone she came in contact with,” Betz says), a near-death experience that prompts her to pack up the car and her daughters and relocate from Ohio to paradise. A Fort Lauderdale friend (played by Drea de Matteo) has offered to set her up with a house-cleaning job, with a vague understanding that it might lead to a role with the wealthy homeowner’s main line of work, moving tons of marijuana by boat.
Christina not only finds a way to move the girls from a low-rent motel into a sprawling ranch home and send them to private school, she also discovers she’s pretty good at the logistics of drug running, and the respect is intoxicating. That there is a handsome co-conspirator around (played by Cam Gigandet) doesn’t hurt.
It is not giving too much away to say that domestic violence and drug-fueled binges litter the film to the end. But Paquin’s husband, her “True Blood” co-star Stephen Moyer, says he wasn’t uncomfortable on-set.
“Anna is a tough cookie. I was more worried for the guy she was fighting,” the British-born Moyer says, laughing into the phone. “She doesn’t pull any punches … She’s a full-on WWE wrestler.”
“Free Ride” is the first film from Paquin’s and Moyer’s new production company, CASM.
“A lot of the stuff that we are interested in, subjects we are drawn to, have to do with ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Moyer says by phone from New York. “Real-life tales of people stretching beyond themselves to protect their family, the ones they love. Stories of how the innocent get manipulated by the powerful.”
Any reservations he might have had in going with a first-time director were dispelled in his first meeting with Betz, Moyer says.
“When I first sat down with her, we talked about what she had been through as a child, and you could see there was this extraordinary bond between her and her mum,” Moyer says. “She worshiped her mum for what she did for those girls. I was fascinated by it.”
Moyer also was impressed at Betz's detailed vision for the film. He says she arrived with a “look book” filled with pictures, articles and sketches illustrating the tone and the look of the film, from the fashion to the cars (Sarasota is a stand-in for Fort Lauderdale).
Betz says it was important to get the visual tone right: Her family's arrival in Fort Lauderdale "felt like going to Disney," she says. "The colors, the sun, the water… Life felt big and bright and hopeful.”
A MOTHER'S WORDS
As the closing credits roll on “Free Ride,” the screen fills with a slide show of archival photos, including one of a smiling Christina posed in a swimsuit during her drug-running days, before she did 18 months in jail for trafficking 6 tons of marijuana. They are accompanied by another voice-over:
“Being a mom, the only thing that a mother thinks about is taking care of her children. No matter what. I think a lot of the drug stuff where a lot of the women are in jail, I think that’s a big part of just trying to take care of your family. You know? If you can’t get any government help or you can’t find a job, then you resort to other things, and that’s the way it is. You do what you got to do to take care of your kids and your family. And that’s what I did.”
The voice is that of the real-life Christina, recorded by Betz earlier this year. Betz says she had flown her mother, who now lives near her other daughter in West Virginia, to Los Angeles to watch a rough cut of the film, and to record her impressions.
“I wanted her to talk about what she thought of the movie, and that [quote] came out,” Betz says with lingering astonishment.
“Funny enough, some people are put off by that [quote]. They say she isn’t sorry enough for what she did,” says Betz, who believes that reaction illustrates a class disconnect festering in the country. “Look, both my parents were in prison. We were on AFDC, welfare. My mother worked three jobs while we were growing up. But because she was not equipped with the right problem-solving skills, we had to go to Florida, or keep getting the shit kicked out of her. There was a job down there. So you go. You do it.”
When “Free Ride” opens FLIFF at 7 p.m. Friday Betz also will be celebrating her 41st birthday, and joining her on the red carpet will be her mother and sister, a rare reunion of all three, she says. It will be the first time Christina has been back in Fort Lauderdale since she left in the early 1980s, Betz says.
“So I get to sit there and watch her life story with my mother and my sister for the first time, on my birthday. I couldn’t write something that stupid,” she says, laughing. “But I’m so excited.”
("Free Ride" also will be shown at 6 p.m. Saturday at Muvico Pompano 18 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood, with Betz in attendance at both screenings.)
IF YOU GO
When: The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival will screen more than 175 films Friday-Nov. 11
Where: Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale (503 SE Sixth St.), Cinema Paradiso Hollywood (2008 Hollywood Blvd.), Muvico Pompano 18 (2315 N. Federal Highway), Sunrise Civic Center Theater (10610 W. Oakland Park Blvd.) and Bailey Hall, Broward College Campus (3501 Davie Road, Davie)
Cost: $10, $8 students/seniors, $6 members; special screenings $10-$25; Fast Pass entry to all films Oct. 21-Nov. 11 $450, $395 members
Contact: 954-525-3456 or FLIFF.com