A film about teen mental illness and suicide is screening at this week’s Woodstock Film Festival. It will also be shown at a local high school Friday.
That’s from the trailer for “Holden On,” a film about the life of a popular teen in the 1990s who was a star athlete but who struggled with mental illness and addiction before taking his own life at age 19. Tamlin Hall was one of Holden Layfield’s classmates and is director of the film, his first.
“I knew Holden growing up. And we grew up together in a small town in LaGrange, Georgia; it’s about an hour south of Atlanta. And what really initially drew me to want to tell the story is that I was bullied and I was picked on when I was growing up and I was overweight, and Holden was a couple years older than me and he was one of the only people to treat me like a human being and made me feel like I belonged in this world and saw through all of that and saw the heart that I had, and he used his compassion and acceptance and generosity to really keep me here and make me feel like I belonged here in this world,” says Hall. “And so that was really what was the driving force was Holden’s humanity that made me want to tell the story and show the person behind the illness.”
David Nelsen-Epstein teaches social studies and filmmaking at Onteora High School in Ulster County. He says the screening is part of the school’s Woodstock Film Festival Career Day, which has been around for 10 years. Students from other schools in the area also will attend. And though the program is geared toward filmmaking, Nelsen-Epstein says the film was chosen for its subject matter as well.
“One of the things we hope is to sort of learn a little more about the filmmaker’s process but in the mix of that is that we can really bring to the table a conversation about mental health and suicide, which is really a pretty heavy topic to be talking about with high school kids,” says Nelsen-Epstein.
He says Wednesday was a prep day.
“We’re always looking for films that are most appropriate for teen audiences and this is a tough one because… I actually today briefed with my students; we got the school social worker into the class and we talked about mental illness and drug use with mental illness and suicide,” Nelsen-Epstein says. “And I really prepped the kids not just to talk about these issues because I really wanted them to be able to address the filmmaker not just on sort of filmmaking terms, but on sort of the mental health aspect as well.”
Hall says he hopes the movie will inspire discussion about mental health and suicide prevention.
“When I started this process, I told Bob and Brenda Layfield, Holden’s parents, that there are going to be things about Holden that comes out in the film that you’ve never known because it’s my job to piece these puzzle pieces together of Holden’s life to be able to tell the whole story because, often in life, we have this part or this part or this part and so that’s what, one thing that I really want the audience to walk away with is that we often have that ‘Why? Why? Why?’ And that is so often the case anytime we’re dealing with someone who has taken their life because you go, oh, well they were doing so good or, we just don’t know why. Well, with ‘Holden On,’ it is our hope that at least we can start a discussion of this warning sign or this warning sign, or this led to this that led to this that led to this,” Hall says. “We did not want to make a film that this is it, or this was the reason or this was the reason. That was a lot of the case with the guys who did drugs with Holden, what we called ‘the summer of drugs,’ is that it took them a long time to trust me enough in telling their part of the story and their side of the story not to demonize them because they felt like I was going to lead into that like the drugs were the downfall of Holden. And I said, ‘this is not the case at all.’”
“Holden On” is being shown during the Woodstock Film Festival Saturday in Woodstock and Sunday in Saugerties.