It might sound like fun to see a truly Capitol Hill movie but My Last Year with the Nuns is not a pleasant film. Yes, Matt Smith‘s acting is compelling and at turns dazzling as he deadpans his way through a script that’s been honed for nearly two decades, telling the story of a “white, 13-year old boy” living in Capitol Hill circa 1966, during the protagonist’s eighth grade year at St. Joseph’s Catholic School. And yes, in his directorial film debut, Capitol Hill theater veteran Bret Fetzer pulls on decades of experience of doing a lot with relatively little and helps turn a one man stage play, and a $50,000 or so budget, into a smartly-composed and imaginative feature-length monologue film that was a hit at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2014.
But the film does not flinch as it depicts the the racism, sexism and homophobia that informed and constructed the young protagonist’s reality and helped define his identity, and that still resonates in the reality and identity of his older, somewhat more reflective self, who plays the narrator.
“When I put this together, I wanted to convey the truthful essence of my experience from the point of view of a 13-year-old boy,” Smith told CHS, “And I tried to tell it from the stream-of-consciousness of this 13-year-old boy in such a way that it didn’t take me off the hook.”
After its packed shows at The Egyptian during SIFF last year, My Last Year with the Nuns is returning to Capitol Hill for a week’s run at Northwest Film Forum, where it will be taking over both screens starting Friday. The film will show at 7 PM and 9 PM daily through Thursday, January 19. Members of the film’s crew are promised to be present at all screenings. Tickets are available here.
“Nobody has written about what it was like growing up on Capitol Hill. It’s a village and tradition that is vanishing,” Smith told CHS last year before the film’s SIFF debut.
For all the youthful revelry the movie celebrates, for its observations on psychological development and its humor, and for all the Capitol Hill it packs in, My Last Year with the Nuns is also a film that is likely to disturb. It is a film that does not seek to whitewash — or even apologize for, explain or moralize about — bigotry. It is a film that might provoke thought and discussion about the history and ongoing legacy of white supremacy, patriarchy and heterosexism in Capitol Hill and in the US in general. Or, in somewhat different terms, My Last Year with the Nuns could be viewed as an exploration of whiteness, of masculinity and of heterosexuality as they are constructed against and through their putative counterparts.
Smith’s experiences, and the stories he heard of those around him, while growing up in what was a white Catholic stronghold in northeast Capitol Hill in the days when the redline was a yet more recent official policy form the loose basis for the film. There are no exactly true stories in the film, but most of the stories contain some truth or are composites of actual events, just as many of the characters are composites of actual people, Smith said.
The film is peppered with crude adolescent humor heavy on spit, and with situational humor that pulls on cliches pertaining to the age group at hand and the male gender, yet which maintains an edge and a hint of depth, or cynicism even. It also draws comedy out of Smith’s Catholic upbringing including in a scene that involves a choral troublemaker accused of causing the crucifix to tumble off St. Joe’s cathedral, and in a scene that details the fallout of an “early Jesuit experiment” of sorts meant to determine if cigarettes and their filters are separate entities. In the film, some students at St. Joe’s sneak off to Red Mill Burgers at lunch — the Greenwood eatery was formerly located in the building at 19th and Aloha where a Tully’s is now housed — just as, Smith said, it happened in the late 60’s.
Smith says he wanted the film to reflect the reality of the world he grew up in. “I didn’t want to come in and say, ‘This is what I saw some boys do.’ No,” he said, “This is me. This is who I was. And this is who my dad was.”
To be clear, that reality included use of the n-word, antisemitic taunts, homophobic slurs, racist mockery and misogynistic tropes. And that reality conferred significant and particular privilege upon white, straight males.
Such privilege is on full display in a scene in which a group of white, Catholic boys attempting to gay bash men cruising in Volunteer Park with crude but dangerous weapons are busted by undercover cops. They are all let off after one boy spins a lie, telling the officers that a pair of new local beat cops gave them permission. This story has its basis in fact, Smith said.
The cinematic version of My Last Year with the Nuns was spun out of a stage play Smith has been performing and perfecting for nearly 19 years. His main creative partner in telling his stories and bringing them to the stage for the last two decades has been Fetzer.
Though it’s the first film he’s ever directed, Fetzer described moving the script from the stage to the screen as a fairly seamless process.
“It started with Matt telling me various stories about his 8th grade year at St. Joseph’s, and gradually we wove them into the theater piece, which translated pretty directly into the movie,” Fetzer said. “I think the key to the success of translating Nuns into a movie is that the stories are so strong as stories — they aren’t dependent on the medium. It’s just about getting the narrative across as clearly as possible. My goal was to not get in the way, while at the same time trying to find situations that would ‘frame’ the stories so as to make them as direct as possible.”
Fetzer said he had a great first experience with filmmaking thanks to producer Michael Seiwerath, the film’s line producer Jennessa West, its “jane-of-all-trades” Deryn Williams, and cinematographer Ben Kasulke.
“Many was the time where I’d be not wholly satisfied but felt we had to move on because of time constraints, and Ben would lean over and gently encourage me to wait until I’ve got the shot I want,” Fetzer said of the celebrated cinematographer behind Humpday.
Other names involved with My Last Year with the Nuns include Jacob Rosen, who was behind the camera, and John Osebold of the band Awesome and other Seattle projects, who created the film’s score.
With the film continuing to grow a following and getting in front of more of the people who live on the Capitol Hill, and in the Seattle, of today, Smith says he has found new connections to the city.
“When we started working on this piece, I didn’t plan for race to be such a major part,” he said. “But once I started writing it and the stories kept coming up, then it became more and more apparent that really was the case — that was the most interesting, the most compelling, the most important part of this particular play,” Smith said. “And the journey was continued after I performed it so many times. And [through] the conversations that I had so many times,” he said. “I learned more and more about what was going on at that time and had conversations — very frank conversations — with people who I may not have had conversations with.”
You can learn more at facebook.com/mylastyearwiththenuns.