Stretch limos, tuxedos, sequins and bouquets of Kleenex were the order of the evening at Friday’s red-carpet opening of the 28th edition of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.
Among the most glittery of Hollywood glitterati were “True Blood” star Stephen Moyer, Lea Thompson (“Back to the Future”) and John Shea (“Gossip Girl”) who parried flashbulbs and media inquiries soon after their limos rolled up in front of Cinema Paradiso in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
But for most onlookers, the true stars of the evening were less well known: Shana Betz, the screenwriter and director of FLIFF’s opening-night feature, the Anna Paquin-starring “Free Ride,” arrived with Moyer, her executive producer. With Betz, on her 41st birthday no less, were her mother Christina and sister Debbie, reuniting the three subjects of the emotionally draining film that was the centerpiece of the evening.
“Free Ride,” the low-budget drama that is the first release from Paquin and husband Moyer’s CASM Films, traces the true story of Christina’s involvement in the late-70s South Florida drug trade to provide for Debbie and Shana. Set in Fort Lauderdale, scenes of domestic violence, drugs and a harrowing car wreck flicker in tense juxtaposition with the unyielding love between mother and daughters.
The FLIFF screening brought Christina and Debbie back to Fort Lauderdale for the first time since those troubles.
Just off the red carpet, Debbie, admitted to being “real nervous” about seeing her sister’s film for the first time. “I brought plenty of tissue,” she said, flipping through the stack in her hand.
Resplendent in blue sequins (the after-party had a Gatsby theme), Debbie, who now lives near Wheeling, W. Va., where she drives dump trucks and 18-wheelers, said she was especially interested in seeing how her car wreck would be handled. The film, which Shana said was in part intended as “an apology” to older sister Debbie for having to be a second mother during the bad old days, reaches a climax with the wreck that left Debbie with scars that are still visible 35 years later.
In introductory comments, Betz admitted to being nervous, but called the film's acceptance by a festival in the city where it takes place, and the reunion with her mother and sister, "a perfect circle."
A standing-room-only crowd of nearly 300 were jammed into Cinema Paradiso to see “Free Ride,” which overcame some early technical difficulties to mesmerize the room. During a post-film Q&A, one audience member pointed out to Moyer, Shana and the others that FLIFF director Gregory von Hausch’s “impeccable” taste has given the festival’s opening-night films a great track record when it comes to future awards.
Standing in front of the screen, Christina was near tears in describing her pride over Shana’s film, Paquin’s performance and her gratitude that Moyer and CASM Films would make a film about people so far off the Hollywood radar.
With her arm around Betz’s waist, Debbie told the crowd, “I had a guardian angel watching over me so I could watch over my sister.” Looking at Shana, she said, “I just did what I had to do as a big sister. And I love you.”
"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.
Elsewhere, Moyer fielded questions about HBO’s “True Blood,” the vampire saga starring Paquin and himself that will soon start production for its final season. “Even I have no idea what’s going to happen [in the final season]. I haven’t seen a script,” said Moyer, who impressed the ladies with a no-tie, black-tie look that British guys have a way of pulling off.
A remarkably youthful Thompson and the ruggedly handsome Shea touted their well-reviewed new film, “The Trouble With the Truth,” screening at FLIFF on Saturday, in which they play a divorced couple rehashing their rocky marriage over dinner. Both are down to attend the screening at 7:15 p.m. at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale.
“Lea and I were married once already [in 1998’s “A Will of Their Own”], and we were great together,” Shea said, with a laugh. “So it was fun to see how we’d be at being divorced.”
Saturday's big events include the opening of Cinema Paradiso Hollywood and a free street party centered around an outdoor screening of "Back to the Future," which Thompson will introduce.
More info on Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival screenings and tickets, go to FLIFF.com.