Tough subject: Brownsville native’s new film examines bullying, suicide

Marie J. Magdaleno’s latest short film, premiering Saturday at the ITEC Center, shines a light on a subject that’s hard to talk about, so most people don’t: bullying and suicide, especially among young people.

The film, titled “121,” a reference to the average daily U.S. suicide rate at the time writer/director Magdaleno wrote the script, follows a high school freshman, Brandon, played by Brownsville resident Will Hainley, who endures bullying not just at school but also at home.

A school counselor (played by Emma Trevino) can see he’s hurting and keeping everything bottled up inside, gives him a journal and encourages him to vent on the page. This is drama, so it doesn’t end there, of course.

“The story takes a really crazy twist,” Magdaleno said. “I won’t say what happens at the end.”

Abigail Espinoza, Dirk McElyea and Daniela Vidaurre round out the main cast.

Magdaleno said she was inspired to make “121” by several stories she’d heard of people who took their own lives — including a friend who committed suicide. She also participated in suicide awareness walks in San Antonio, and was surprised and saddened to see hundreds of families, many of them wearing T-shirts bearing photos of children as young as 8 and 10 who had killed themselves.

It made her realize suicide is more prevalent than most people think and that it should be getting more attention, Magdaleno said.

“We don’t talk about it,” she said. “People are shy. You only hear about it when a celebrity does it.”

The final frames of “121” feature images of suicide victims sent to her by family members, friends and loved ones of the victims, many of whom were victims of bullying, Magdaleno said. Bullying is too often dismissed by adults — even by school administrators — as “kids being kids,” she said. In light of the frequently tragic consequences, no level of bullying should be tolerated, Magdaleno said.

“My whole purpose is to show people that sometimes it’s not just the school where you get bullied,” she said. “You can get bullied at home. This kid goes through life being bullied by both.”

All her films were shot in the Rio Grande Valley, and Magdaleno admits she’s especially happy with “121,” shot entirely on location in Brownsville in July.

The Brownsville native, now living in San Antonio, cites among her biggest influences “Avatar” and “Titanic” director James Cameron. Her “Titanic moment” in the new film happened during shooting for a scene taking place on a residential street in Brownsville and involving emergency responders, she said.

It’s not a happy scene, and Magdaleno observed during the shoot that a number of onlookers — residents of the neighborhood — were crying. That’s when she knew she’d done something.

“All of my films are like my babies, but this film in particular, it’s just something I’m very proud of,” she said.

Magdaleno praised the city’s police and fire department/EMS personnel for playing such an important role.

“They all showed up and were good sports,” she said. “They were awesome.”

Meanwhile, the film crew she’s used since her first film, “Fearless Fight” (2015), has become like family.

“It is so much fun, especially when you have a team who’s been there with you since (the beginning),” Magdaleno said. “We are getting better all together. … Collectively we’re just so proud and we keep moving forward.”

She said she loves filmmaking even though it’s complicated and stressful at times, even on a relatively modest scale.

“If I could do this forever, just this solely, I would,” Magdaleno said.

The 30-minute film, shot entirely on location in Brownsville, recently wrapped up post-production and is now being shopped around the film festival circuit for screening in various cities. Magdaleno’s previous short film, “Piper,” was screened in California, New York and Berlin among other cities.

“It definitely puts Brownsville out there, because when we compete in New York and stuff, and we’ve got (a film) in, it’s a big deal,” she said. “You see people from all over the world, all different cities, and it’s cool to see Brownsville out there.”

A free public screening of “121” starts at 7 p.m. on Jan. 12 at the ITEC Center, Room D102, 301 Mexico Blvd. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.