A new Houston-made film hopes to flip the script on Hollywood stereotypes by telling its story from the point of view of a handful of Latinx teenagers. Rich Kids, which was written by Pasadena native Laura Somers, features a cast of roughly 80 percent actors of color, most of them Latinx Houstonians who have never acted in a feature film before. That's a rarity in the film world, where many movies still only have one or two token characters of color.
The movie is already creating buzz at film festivals. It debuted in March at the Houston Latino Film Festival and won Best Ensemble this past weekend at the Phoenix Film Festival, considered one of the 25 best film festivals in the U.S. by MovieMaker Magazine.
"The reception was very excited," Somers says. "People were just blown away about seeing themselves on the screen."
The movie tells the story of a group of kids who break into an abandoned mansion in order to party it up. The fun inevitably ends, leading to a climax that addresses issues of race, class, gender, and violence.
The story was inspired by events that happened at Somers' parents' house, which they vacated during the housing crisis. But Somers, who is white, was committed to bringing the experience of the marginalized kids to the screen. To that end, she partnered with her longtime friend, former Austin resident David Saldaña, to write a script that reflected a more intersectional point of view. She also incorporated some of the life experiences of her cast into the script.
"Every independent filmmaker tries to draw from their own personal lives," she says. "I really wanted to tell this story, but I would really like to tell it from the kids' perspective."
For actor Gerardo Velasquez, who plays the film's main character, Matías, the movie tells a familiar story.
"It speaks volumes to what the American dream really is," he says.
Velasquez, a first-generation American, grew up in Katy with single mom, who is Mexican. He moved to Hollywood to work as an actor, but was discouraged by the lack of roles for people of color. He was back in Katy, living with his mom, when he found a casting notice for Rich Kids on Facebook. Auditions had already happened, but he decided to go out on a limb and email Somers anyway. He ended up being perfect for the part.
"I remember distinctly her saying 'When I saw your audition tape, I started crying because I realized I had found Matt,'" he says.
Velasquez, who recently moved to Pittsburg with his girlfriend, came back to Houston for the Latino Film Festival screening. He said seeing the movie on the big screen for the first time helped him realize how important the story was—a story that humanizes people who are frequently dehumanized in mainstream media.
"I just never realized how important representation was until being a part of this film," he says. "There are just so many theater things I've been involved in that made me feel like we had one single role in the arts, and it was to play these stereotypical characters. This movie allowed me to be myself and allowed the whole cast to be themselves. Upon reading the script I was like, 'This is exactly my life, this is exactly how I grew up, this is exactly how we talked and what we did.'"
Somers is hoping to build off the film's success in Phoenix by attending other film festivals. In the meantime, movie fans can keep up to date on future screenings through the Rich Kids website.