Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Hollywood Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit hollywoodfilmfestival.com and follow the festival on Twitter at @hollywoodfest.
Writer and director Leah Yanaton’s Surviving Me: The Nine Circles of Sophie is one of the more realistic cinematic representations of college students’ struggles. It unapologetically, through refreshingly relatable dialogue, costuming and events, examines the difficulties so familiar to undergraduates students everywhere of forging friendships and relationships, navigating sexual experiences, respecting boundaries, and, above all, learning who you are and continuing to grow, while remaining authentic, and not becoming overly engrossed in yourself.
Surviving Me is an independent film worth watching, a product of Yananton’s excellent script, direction and casting choices.
Sophie (Christine Ryndak) is a college student in her junior year who has cut off communication with her parents, and has relied on private funding to get herself through school. She is a poet and enthusiastic student of classical poetry and literature, excelling as the brightest and most devoted student in Professor Slateman’s (Fredric Lehne) class. She is dating and sleeping with Jimmy (Vincent Piazza), a fellow student in Slateman’s class, despite being unsatisfied with him and having truer feelings for Slateman. Sophie’s best friend Kiera (played by Yananton) is constantly frustrated that Sophie continues to string Jimmy along, encouraging her instead to pursue her professor, as his marriage with his wife Jacqueline (Mira Furlan) appears to be stagnant. While Sophie is stubbornly sure of herself and her decisions at the start of the film, her actions, her actions’ consequences, and a devastating event come together to cause her to question all of the decisions she has been so sure of for so long.
The director’s honest and open approaches to the personal, moral and sexual struggles inherent in today’s college populations . . .
Kiera (Yananton), meanwhile, is a funky free spirit who engages in sex with several different men throughout the film, despite having true feelings for Sophie. She makes many passes at Sophie, who sometimes reciprocates and sometimes pushes Kiera away. It is this hot-and-cold dynamic that threatens to cause a rift in their friendship, as each girl perceives the other’s actions regarding the men they’re with to be disingenuous and unfair, with Kiera being especially resentful of how much Sophie teases her emotionally and sexually. While both girls initially perceive their sexual choices as power, this perception becomes questionable as the story’s events unfold.
We gain further insight into Sophie’s thoughts through voiceovers which are largely reminiscent of Winona Ryder’s laments in Girl, Interrupted, right down to the soft yet gravely inflection in her voice. Yananton divides the stages of Sophie’s journey into chapters titled with the Seven Deadly Sins with two additional sins; there is a large overlying presence of religious imagery throughout the film, which amplifies Sophie’s search for meaning and identity, both of which she thinks she has already formed, refusing to consider anyone’s points of view or feelings as she moves forward in her increasingly confusing and complex decisions. Although the pace of the film remains generally consistent, the tension and drama as the storyline reaches its apex is almost palpable; at times, it was difficult to watch the scenes unfold, as they were so gritty, realistic and cringe-inducing.
Surviving Me is an independent film worth watching, a product of Yananton’s excellent script, direction and casting choices. Although Sophie is the film’s protagonist, the supporting characters are all developed enough to have substance; it is easy to find bits of humanity in each to relate to, and to wonder about where the characters will end up in the future. The director’s honest and open approaches to the personal, moral and sexual struggles inherent in today’s college populations make for a film experience that is far from immediately forgettable, instead promising to linger for a time after the credits roll.
Surviving Me examines the difficulties so familiar to undergraduates students everywhere of forging friendships and relationships, navigating sexual experiences, respecting boundaries, and, above all, learning who you are and continuing to grow, while remaining authentic, and not becoming overly engrossed in yourself.