When Valedictorian writer and director Matthew Yeager left his hometown of Houston to attend film school in his adopted home of New York City, he ended up working at a video rental store there with, of all people, legendary rock critic Paul Nelson. After a vaunted career at Rolling Stone, Nelson had seemingly up and walked away, going from being the critical voice of a generation to, well, a regular guy. No one could seem to understand why.
Whatever Nelson's reasons, "he was quick and funny," says Yeager. "We bonded over music and films. He taught me a lot." It was Nelson’s decision to walk away that inspired Yeager to write Valedictorian, which was shot in 12 days, one a month over the course of a year. The film, an indie effort which was recently shown at the Northside Festival in Brooklyn, and which Yeager hopes to show at River Oaks Theatre soon, follows a young man named Ben (Brian Dell) who slowly cuts himself off from the expectations of society over the course of a year, eventually living homeless on the streets.
Early in the movie, Ben’s friend and coworker Sandra (Jennifer Prediger) desperately tries to convince him to stay at his current job. We never find out exactly what either of them does for a living, just that there’s no meaning in their existence, and that’s why Ben just walks away. He sells his television, attends a party where he spends most of the time looking out over the balcony while partygoers drink too much and talk about work, and attends practice sessions with his band.
"I wanted to show how people saw Ben and tried to rationalize why he was moving away from everything. It’s not really about why he’s doing it, but about how we judge it," says Yeager.
Ben carries around a small notebook throughout the film, in which he makes little notes, a real-life predilection of Dell’s that made its way into the film. There’s no voiceover to accompany his constant writing. We only ever catch random words in brief shots of the notebook, and you can hear those same words as Ben sings snatches of a song to himself throughout the movie.
Valedictorian is a hard film to categorize. Whether it’s a happy story or a sad one largely depends on whether viewers are satisfied with their own lives. Are they in the place they want to be, or where someone else wants them? It’s a movie that makes viewers ask serious questions of themselves and, as a result, may make them uncomfortable. It’s also a film that finds possibility in the unexpected.