Director Tamlin Hall’s phenomenal first film tells the true story of a teen from the small town of LaGrange, Georgia struggling with mental illness and addiction in the mid ‘90s.
Holden Layfield had a terrible secret: he suffered from schizophrenia and addiction. He’d been a cheerful and friendly popular kid and star athlete. He was kind, showed love and compassion for everyone and kept his illness secret for as long as he could; a long time. He eventually began hearing voices and suffering other symptoms as his condition worsened. He began to self-medicate with various addictive drugs and eventually became disconnected from school, family, and social life enduring illnesses that were poorly understood and stigmatized.
On November 16, 1995 19 year old Holden committed suicide with a shotgun.
One of his younger high school classmates was Tamlin Hall, who would be so moved and inspired by Holden’s trials and the shock of his death that after graduating from UCLA with an MFA in screenwriting he came home to LaGrange to tell the story in his film Holden On. Hall’s intent is to bring Holden to life again immortalized in film and also to shine a light on the stigma surrounding mental illness and encourage others who are suffering to talk about it and seek help.
Hall shares about this in an interview we did the day before Holden On premiered at the 2017 Atlanta Film Festival.
“…a personal passionate tribute to someone whose life was pulled away before it even started because of a terrible mental illness.”
Holden On is superbly done. Adrian Pruett’s Cinematography impeccably captures the look of the town of LaGrange and the time period. He even calls back the music video styles of that time. There’s a certain almost vérité look of high school films he’s captured as well. I’m thinking about Friday Night Lights and Dazed and Confused. It’s a high intensity but still casual documentary look and feel.
The film moves confidently, its rhythms ebb and flow with emotional intelligence. The characters of his parents, coaches, and doctors all ring true. Grounded in passion and real life, even though the story is from two decades ago it all feels relevant and fresh. Life was so normal for Holden at first. He has the usual teen challenges and adventures with his best friend Zinte. Everyone is confused and hurt when he begins to pull away.
The soundtrack features iconic 90’s music from bands like R.E.M.
26 year old Matthew Fahey carries the movie on screen starring as Holden in what is also his first full length feature film. He brings a disarming charisma and guileless ease to the character that matches descriptions of Holden. Playing a real person in the place where he walked, among his family and friends is a stressful challenge for an actor. Fahey disappears into the role effortlessly. He makes it look easy.
It’s hard to watch the scenes where Holden begins to slip and to know his parents and sister were involved in making the film. Imagine what that was like for them to re-live even 19 years later. According to Hall, they were part of the process from the very beginning and even appear in the film. Holden’s dad, Bob Layfield, has a cameo in the scene with a grief sharing group. Mr. Layfield still attends the grief sessions even now.
If Hall had made a film this good about anything it would be noteworthy. That he did it about a subject so personal to him and those impacted by the life of Holden Layfield is amazing. He navigated a minefield of issues from dealing with crowd-funding and grants to respectfully engaging with the Layfield family and in fact the entire city of LaGrange with compassion and respect. Considering that it’s his first full length feature it’s clear that Hall has enormous talent, skill, and drive. He is going places.
As part of the project an organization was formed called I Am Holden On, combining the movie and art projects with the aim of encouraging teens who may have similar problems to shake off the stigma and talk with someone. Additional funding for the organization is forthcoming and Hall hopes the film can be used in this way indefinitely.
This movie is a personal passionate tribute to someone whose life was pulled away before it even started because of a terrible mental illness. One story ends as we leave Holden to rest in peace. Another story begins: Tamlin Hall is off to a damn good start.
Holden On (2017) Written and directed by: Tamlin Hall. Starring: Matthew Fahey, Jenna Kanell, Ross Thomas.
9 out of 10