Award-winning film, “Finding Home” has IU Southeast connection

7th April 2017
Cullen Moss and Abel Zukerman in a scene from "Finding Home"

Cullen Moss as Courtland and Abel Zukerman as Oskar in a scene from “Finding Home.”

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–What does “home” mean to you?

That’s the question at the center of “Finding Home,” a deeply compassionate and expertly crafted indie film written and directed by Nick Westfall and co-produced by Bradford Griggs, assistant professor of education at IU Southeast.

The film will screen on Tuesday, April 11 at 7:30 p.m. in Hillside Hall, Room 104. Afterwards, Westfall and Griggs will lead a conversation about the making of the film and explore some of the education-related themes that figure prominently in it.

Finding Home” has been wowing festival audiences with its powerful story of how families are often made, not born, as well as with acting performances and production values far in excess of its modest budget. Yet the film’s unique backstory is also intriguing, especially for the IU Southeast community.

Finding home

The elevator pitch for “Finding Home” goes something like this: After being fired and divorcing his wife, Courtland, a teacher played by Cullen Moss (“The Walking Dead”), faces the biggest challenge of all–finding a home for his late stepsister’s illegitimate son.

As the story unfurls, the characters grapple with separation, adoption, education and ultimately connection. In this landscape, home is less a place than a perception, and the search for it less a quest than an act of love and insight.

Griggs invited Westfall to show the film as part of a class, M-300: Teaching in a Pluralistic Society.

In this class, students examine themselves as raced, classed and cultural beings. They explore learning styles, cultural pluralism, and classroom teaching strategies that respond positively to the personal and ethnic diversity of the learner.

“Teaching in a diverse culture can pose challenges for educators,” Griggs said. “This course is designed to help prospective teachers conceptualize diversity as liberating and enriching to all students, the school and greater community.”

Diversity, in the context of “Finding Home,” is the fact of lives that take shape outside the nuclear norm. Adoption is a major theme of the film (Westfall’s mother was adopted, and the film was timed to launch on National Adoption Day), but there are other ways in which individuals may not resemble the majority of those around them, and all these qualities resonate in classroom environments. Understanding children and adolescents as human beings is vital to being able to engage them as learners.

“We want our teachers to know where they come from,” Griggs said.

The unspoken premise of Griggs’ course is that “normal” may be more of a unifying fiction than a documented reality, especially when student self-reflection yields biases, quirks and histories that suggest we are mostly divergent. The characters in “Finding Home” live this reality, accept it, and come together through understanding and trust to form bonds as close and abiding as any inherited through biology.

The “jazz take” of life

The movie owes some debt to the friendship and creative synergy between Westfall and Griggs.

Westfall was a student of Griggs when the latter was teaching a cultural theory course while a graduate assistant and Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Westfall’s major was actually physical education. As Griggs recalls it, Westfall was intense and energetic, bringing strong opinions and a note of action to a class that was usually skewed toward the introspective.

The two stayed in contact after the course, as Westfall’s restless curiosity moved him through a variety of transformative experiences. While teaching P.E. in Brunswick County, N.C. (and winning national teaching awards), Westfall founded 5K runs to combat childhood obesity and led elementary school students in the making of public service announcements about bullying. He gained an M.F.A. in creative writing, and began producing fiction. Griggs helped edit his first novel, “Sink on Impact.” When he learned that Westfall was trying to fund a film via Kickstarter, Griggs got involved with a substantial contribution that helped to generate financial momentum and get the production rolling.

The film was shot on location in Wilmington, N.C., a major film production hub, with a largely local cast and crew. Without any professional experience in screenwriting, casting or directing, Westfall exhibited a natural gift to accompany his confidence. The actors took to the script with conviction, delivering performances that critics have called the best of their careers.

Camera operator on set

Westfall hired a director of photography (DP) who brought high-quality equipment to the shoot. By letting the crew know how much he valued their contributions, Westfall gained trust that led to extraordinary results.

Part of this is down to the unique on-set culture that Westfall created. He asked each member of the crew to define what “home” meant to them. This created a unity of purpose and an emotional investment that gave the production a compelling authenticity in dealing with tough personal issues. He also “reserved” one take of each scene for improvisation, his so-called “jazz take,” which allowed the actors to create their own version of the scene, based on their internal understanding of their characters.

Education anywhere, anytime

Like the film’s story of blended families and a teacher who redefines, for himself, what teaching is all about, its behind-the-scenes details dovetail with Griggs’ teaching intent.

“Even as a filmmaker, Nick is still teaching,” Griggs said. “The film shows how you can teach informally about a topic you’re interested in, but not use a typical classroom.”

Informal education is itself a formal educational discipline. Philosophically, it is begins with recognizing the learning value in everyday situations, including conversations. Educators Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith have written that informal education “works through conversation, and the exploration and enlargement of experience to cultivate communities, associations and relationships that make for human flourishing.” They emphasize that is spontaneous and can take place anywhere, anytime.

In “Finding Home,” Cullen, the protagonist, is able to reboot his dedication to teaching by adopting this more expansive view of his education.

Griggs is keen to communicate the many options that exist for applying teaching knowledge in the world beyond the formal state-sponsored school model.

For example, a minor in education can open up new options for students majoring in seemingly unrelated fields.

“You never know which way your life will go,” Griggs said. “Pedagogically, the skills that we teach here can be used for so many different careers in all areas of life.”

Westfall has retired from formal education to devote himself to writing and directing. He has three novels under his belt and is working on a second feature film.

“Life doesn’t really come with inherent meaning,” Westfall said. “We have to create it.”

“Finding Home” will screen on Tuesday, April 11 at 7:30 p.m. in Hillside Hall, Room 104. A discussion will follow. Admission is free and the public is welcome.

Homepage photo: Cullen Moss as Courtland and Abel Zukerman as Oskar in a scene from “Finding Home.”

All photos courtesy of Langtons International Agency.