By Gordon K. Smith
NO LETTING GO is a small but vital independent film about a family’s struggle with their son’s mental health crisis. At a roundtable interview in late March, we learned about the film and its mission from actress Cheryl Allison (Catherine the mother) and co-writer/producer Randi Silverman. The film is based on an award-winning short called ILLNESS.
Cheryl Allison was born in Fort Worth, raised in Dallas and has degrees in Music and Voice from Texas Women’s University in Denton. By profession a lawyer, Randi Silverman became involved through a producer friend and her own experiences with her son Eli’s struggle with bipolar disease. Randi’s youngest son Noah plays a fictionalized version of his own older brother Eli in the film.
CHERYL: I met a woman named Carina Rush, we’d done “Camelot” together. We’ve been dear friends since 1991. In 2013, on the phone, she told me she was producing a short film. A French director, Jonathan Bucari, had written a script about a young boy struggling with mental issues. He was having trouble casting the mother. Would you like to meet with him? I did, and got cast in the role. We shot it in February 2013. Carina was friends with Randi. Randi came on board as a mental health consultant, to make sure we were handling the subject matter correctly. The short film, ILLNESS, was submitted to film festivals worldwide, was very well received and won a lot of awards. Because the short film was 13 minutes, so many people were contacting us and saying they wished it was a feature film, we need something out there that portrays a young boy, a child, the suffering of parents and siblings. So we made a feature in the summer of 2014.
RANDI: Carina didn’t know much about my history, just that I had a little boy (Noah) who was a singer-dancer. Because of my experience with my middle son – when he was very young, something was not quite right and I had him tested. They all said, “he’s fine, you’re just comparing him to your other sons” or “you need to tighten up the reigns a bit”. His behavior became more and more erratic, as you see in the film…he was so depressed and debilitated that by the time he was nine years old, he told me he didn’t want to live anymore. So bad he wouldn’t leave the house…things spiraled out of control and got progressively worse. He was in a psych hospital for a period of time. By the time he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he was so ill…what you don’t see in the movie was the number of doctors we went to, the 50 kinds of medication, the 60 pounds he gained, and all the friends who disappeared. There’s only so much you can tell in an hour 40 minutes…that experience was formative for me and my whole family. When he first started having symptoms which we now know are classic, I had no idea, neither did his teacher or pediatrician…what I heard a lot was, “you need to be tougher”, or even, “YOU need help”.
When I realized that one in five children in our country suffers from a mental illness, that’s almost 15 million children in the USA, and that’s just the children. It doesn’t discriminate – doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you child can suffer from mental illness. I started to get angry. Why didn’t I know this could happen…because no one talks about it. It’s a brain disease, and it’s not his fault…I taught my kids and those around me to treat it as something normal – well, not normal, I don’t like that word – but something that happens like any other illness. I decided I needed to speak out and change the way others think about it. So I got very involved in my local community in mental health advocacy, public speaking, and getting engaged with school districts. I used my law degree to help other parents with special education advocacy for their children, and the more I talked about it, the more I realized how many there were. I was not alone…so when Carina asked me to read the script, I said “sure!” She asked me to come aboard as a supervisor…I said I didn’t know anything about film, but maybe you should change this line, tiny tweaks and things like that. They lost their lead actor and location couple days before shooting. I said I know a 12-year-old boy who acts. (Jonathan) hired (Noah) on the spot after seeing his headshot, he looked just like (Cheryl). And we shot that film in my house…at a film festival in Ohio, at the Q and A afterwards, everyone wanted to talk about mental illness. They weren’t there to talk about cinema…and I started to really understand the power of film…we sat down with Carina and came up with an outline for a feature film.
Fifty percent of the symptoms of mental illness emerge before the age of 14, 75 percent before the age of 24. Sixty million Americans have some form of mental illness. A bipolar person has a 25-year shorter life expectancy, and 50 percent of them will attempt suicide. My mission is to teach people about the fact that it’s a brain disease…the movie is a catalyst for conversation. On March 30 it becomes available on Video On Demand throughout the country on all major platforms – Time Warner, Cox, Comcast, Wal-Mart, iTunes, on DVD through our website and in May from Amazon. I’m establishing a nonprofit foundation called Youth Mental Health Project and I’m taking the film around the country for community screenings and conversations.
CHERYL: We’ve been contacted by so many people throughout the nation, especially moms, that have written us asking, “When can I see it? Where can I show it?”
KNOWSHI: Was your bipolar son Eli present during the filming?
RANDI: He actually helped me with the screenplay. I would write little pieces and show to him. He was on board with all of that. And he was the second camera operator on the short film ILLNESS. (NO LETTING GO) was harder for him. He was supposed to be on set but he found it really difficult. He was not on set most of the time, but he was very supportive. I would never have done it if my children weren’t supportive because yes it’s my story, but it’s really their story, and they’ve all become involved in mental health advocacy. It took Eli a little while before he had the courage to watch it. He was 19 when he watched it, I stayed in the other room…afterwards he came into the kitchen with tears in his eyes and said, “Mom, I had really forgotten so much. I never saw the other side and I have such a different perspective now. Thank you so much for making this film”. We were both crying by then. He’s come to the screenings to participate in the Q and A’s…people ask why I didn’t make a documentary. I think a feature plays to a wider audience, ‘cause who wants to watch another documentary on this? There really hasn’t been a film like this about a child, unless it’s been a very negative portrayal, or the kid has some kind of excuse.
KNOWSHI: As in ORDINARY PEOPLE.
RANDI: Right. Of course he (Timothy Hutton) wanted to kill himself, because he watched his brother die. It’s not that simple.
CHERYL: I’d done my research, but meeting Randi on the set of the short film took it to a different level. I don’t think I’ll ever do another role that’ll be as important to me. It wasn’t just an acting role; I’ve become an advocate for mental health. Friends I haven’t spoken to since high school have contacted me privately to say, “I have a daughter, a son, a grandchild, a husband…” I met with several of them privately and heard their story, and realized how rampant it is…I was grateful they retained me in the role (from the short), as I’m a New York musical stage actress…but getting some “recognized” talent would help it get distributed…we didn’t have to look hard. Alysia Reiner contacted our producer, read the subject matter and said, “Hey, I’ve been affected by this, this is close to my heart. I’d like to play the best friend.” Everybody took a reduced rate, it was SAG ultra-low budget. Kathy Najimy did the same thing, and Janet Hubert, and the gentleman who played my husband, Richard Burgi, from “Desperate Housewives” – these people took time to be in it, because they believed in it. That made it a cause, not just a film.
NO LETTING GO was released via VOD services on March 30, 2016, World Bipolar Day. For more information on the film and its conversation on mental health, go to: