The Johnny Depp science fiction film “Transcendence” has been kicking around theaters for the past two weeks, but there’s a smaller gem of a movie—independently co-written and co-produced by Kate Cohen, one of “Transcendence’s” producers that’s only available for streaming.
It’s called “Away from Here,” and like “The Woodsman,” it treats a normally sensational subject, adult sex with minors, with refreshing sensitivity. Directed by Bruce Van Dusen, it’s a raw, sweet-natured film, brilliantly-acted by leads Nick Stahl and Alicia Witt, and it deserves wider attention.
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Unlike in “The Woodsman” in which Kevin Bacon’s character, a pedophile just released from jail who tries his hand at adult romance for the first time, the protagonist’s past actions aren’t all that reprehensible. Stahl’s James has just served six years in prison for statutory rape, but the age difference wasn’t so jarring.
As a twenty year-old youth minister he was avidly pursued by Jessica (Mary Regency Boies), a rebellious fifteen year-old churchgoer who just happened to be the preacher’s (“Twin Peaks’s” Ray Wise) daughter, and eventually the two struck up a consensual romance. Now feared and loathed by his former friends and family, James, post-release, is living a lonely existence as a restaurant line cook where he catches the eye of bitter, wounded waitress Lily (Witt). Gradually, they break down each other’s forced stoicism, but as they begin to slip into a normal relationship, Jessica shows up, firmly breaking the code of her family’s restraining order, to make uninvited amends.
Kate Cohen, co-founder of Straight Up Films, based part of “Away from Here” on her own adolescent scandal/tragedy.
“I was fifteen and was really in love with a twenty-eight year-old guy, and he ended up going to jail,” Cohen said. “It was absolutely horrible and devastating. It was sort of healing for me to write this movie.”
Cohen developed the script with Timothy Michael Cooper and Bradley Lawrence. The latter writer, who remained uncredited, had an evangelical past and introduced that angle to the story.
Despite the controversial subject matter, neither Cohen, Witt nor Stahl worried about potential audience vitriol.
“When we did screenings for the film, a lot of guys I spoke to afterwards said they felt so conflicted,” Cohen recalled. “They said, ‘If my sister was fifteen and with someone in their twenties, I’d never forgive them.’ But somehow in this movie, it comes off like they really did love each other and weren’t so far apart in age. Plus, there’s something about Nick that’s so sweet, you just feel for him anyway.”
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“I think it would have been a different story if James had been thirty-five, but he’s twenty and Jessica’s fifteen,” said Witt. “I’m not saying what he did was right, obviously the timing was wrong and the right thing would have been to wait a few years. But she wasn’t really victimized. I didn’t see James as someone that deserved to be put away and never come out again, which is how I feel about child molesters.”
Stahl said he was immediately drawn to the role because of its moral complexity.
“He’s trying to shed the past as much as he can, wrestling with his own shame,” he explained. “I thought the script did a great job at capturing that.”
Both Witt and Stahl were captivated by the story’s central romance from the get-go, particularly the notion of both characters’ fear at becoming intimate with one another.
“I think Lily is only willing to open up to someone equally wounded,” said Witt. “And if you’re not two eighteen year-olds just starting out, you’re going to have a history, and there are things in all of our pasts that we’re embarrassed by and don’t want to ever reveal, things that a potential partner might be repulsed by and want to close the door on.”
Interestingly, the original script contained a subplot that painted Lily in a more sordid manner than what we see on the screen (in the final film, her sadness stems mostly from her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother and general bad luck with men).
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“There was a scene where Lily says her first sexual experience was when she was sixteen and it was with someone much older,” Witt remembered. “It would have been so fascinating if she’s had a similar experience [to James] yet still gets so angry [when she discovers his past]. I think [that hypocrisy] is within many people. If someone cuts you off in traffic, you get angrier about it if you’re the type of person that does that. If you’re not, and somebody does that to you, you just kind of shake your head and say, ‘Oh, hope you get there in time!’”
Cohen did not elaborate on why that scene was cut, saying only, “It just didn’t work.” Another initial idea that was eventually deemed “too dark” by Cohen involved Wise’s preacher plotting to murder James, resulting in the accidental death of his daughter.
Witt and Stahl’s searing chemistry is the fundamental reason to see “Away from Here.”
“There could not have been a better Lily in my mind,” Stahl said.
“Neither of us had acting school experience, yet we’ve both been acting since we were little,” Witt added. “We’re not into massive amounts of rehearsal or running lines until they’re beaten to death. Also, I don’t really like to know where the camera is. I like long lenses, or cameras moving around. I’ve always been resistant to finding my light, or unblocking myself when there are actors in front of me.”
Cohen, who raised the money herself for the film, which cost just over $1 million and was shot in twenty-four days, with Queens and Brooklyn filling in for St. Louis, maintained that she has no regrets about not seeking a theatrical release for “Away from Here.”
“I do work on big studio movies and this is such a small one,” she said. “I love the film, but I just know the kind of money you need to spend to have a successful theatrical release, and we just couldn’t get the kind of marketing behind it that would warrant that. I felt we’d have a really good reach in the VOD market.”
Witt is also content with the film’s online-only status.
“I don’t think it’s any indication of whether something is worth liking,” she said.