“The Stories I Tell Are Just a Way To Get To Know My True Self”: J. Sean Smith on Her Student Short Film Showcase Winner #Whitina
Issues of identity and immigration take Instagram by storm in #Whitina, director J. Sean Smith’s short film, originally helmed as her thesis for the University of Southern California’s Film & Television Production MFA program. The film’s title references the conflict between protagonist Genesis’s (Inde Navarrette) Latinx heritage and her mannerisms and interests, which more closely reflect those of her white classmates. This disconnect has caused a palpable resentment among her culturally rigid Latinx peers, who write off Genesis as a white girl wannabe and an assimilationist snob. However, this tune quickly changes when Genesis helps her former friend (and current DREAMer) Chris (Xolo Maridueña) escape from ICE custody—aided in no small part by a running tackle from Chris’s best friend Belle (Keyla Monterroso Mejia, Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Maria Sofia Estrada).
Yet the ever-watching gaze of iPhone cameras distort the crew’s anti-authoritarian act of solidarity, resulting in a viral clip that bestows a new nickname on Genesis: “Trap Selena.” The one-off Instagram post quickly turns into a national news story, causing Genesis, Chris and Belle to flee from the consequences of fighting for their own survival. #Whitina is one of five winners of the 2022 Student Short Film Showcase, a collaborative program from The Gotham, Focus Features and JetBlue that is available to stream via Focus Features’s YouTube channel and offered in the air as part of JetBlue’s in-flight entertainment selection.
I spoke with Smith over email, covering topics that included choosing concerts over quinceañeras, the incorporation of social media into the film’s very fabric and enduring frustrations over the Biden administration’s inaction over DACA.
Filmmaker: You received a BA in Film Studies from Columbia University and went on to get your MFA from USC. How has your film school experience continued to inform your filmmaking practice?
Smith: Going to film schools on different coasts made for two exponentially different experiences. I loved both, and I can’t imagine one without the other. I learned so much from both. I think I learned more about myself than actual filmmaking, but that made me a better director. Self-awareness, people!
If I had to give you one or two examples: At Columbia, in my first screenwriting class, I was writing this script based on a true story. After my professor read my first draft, he came back and said, “Sean, don’t bore us with the fucking truth.” This piece of advice has stuck with me. Anytime I get too in my head, I remember I am making a movie—this is fun and the audience wants to feel something. Ah, it could all be so simple, right?
USC had different lessons, but the one that resonated the most was: “How are you going to get this movie made?” Meaning, “Where is the money coming from to make this film?”#Whitina almost didn’t happen because my thesis professor wanted to see where the money was coming from to make it (thank you, Kevin Hart!) So I learned really quickly you can have a great story and the best team, etc. But to quote the poet laureate Cuba Gooding Jr., “Show me the money!”
Filmmaker: As a white-passing Latina who also chose to attend a concert over having a quinceañera, this film totally resonated with me. What felt important about telling a story from this specific point of view?
Smith: Can I just say that I love that about you? When I approach scripts and ideas, it’s all rooted in hard truths about me, personally. I feel like the stories I tell are just a way to get to know my true self—I put my heart on that page and pray it resonates with the audience. The character Genesis in #Whitina is someone I think I aspire to be. Growing up #whitina and not feeling like I belonged to my Mexican culture because I was adopted by white parents, I wish I recognized sooner that being Mexican-American doesn’t come with some obscure by-laws like speaking Spanish or having a quince. That we can be #whitina and have a different experience than other Latinx people and still be a part of the culture. What I love about Genesis is that she finally realized that and chose to stand in the gap for other people in our community who are like Chris, undocumented DREAMers. I wish I would have understood that power in my teens, but hopefully telling stories like these will resonate with someone who felt just like I did. I just want brown people/brown girls/la Raza to feel seen, no matter their experience.
Filmmaker: What was the motive behind your main character repeatedly breaking the fourth wall?
Smith: I love coming of age films. I love that you can add a little razzle dazzle like breaking the fourth wall in the genre, and I wanted to pay homage to that vibe. It was important for me to have a coming of age film with an all Latinx cast and say, “John Hughes? We can do that!” I feel like having Genesis break the fourth wall, especially at the end, was powerful. She literally says to the audience, “We belong here.” And we do!
Filmmaker: How did you go about deciding the role that social media would play within this film? A viral clip propels the film’s plot, but the film’s fabric is also literally embedded with Instagram stories and posts.
Smith: I knew this film was going to be a coming of age film, and I wanted to position ourselves within the zeitgeist of the 2020s. A lot of filmmakers shy away from modern tech on screen because, let’s be honest, it’s not cute. I don’t want to see phone screens and text the whole film. But that’s what made it fun for our team. We were like, “How can we speak to this generation but make it different, cinematically?” Because it was a short film, I was thinking about how the audience can get to know the main character, Genesis, in a short amount of time. I thought, let’s give the audience her Instagram page, and then the concept evolved from there.
Because we got shut down during editing due to COVID, the animator Molly Murphy and I had time to really embed this idea within the whole film. My favorite part is the IG grid finale—we used real DACA DREAMers’s Instagram pages, and it was important to myself and the team to do that and have their voices be seen and heard.
Filmmaker: The film addresses policies of the Trump era, but what do you hope the film communicates about the enduring Latino (and DREAMer) experience in the U.S.?
Smith: Oof! I’m so upset about what is going on. Obviously, with the Biden administration, not much has changed. I have friends who are DACA, and this program has been successful for a decade. It infuriates me that people still can’t apply for DACA. There have been no new recipients in past two years, and the lives of current DACA recipients (close to 700,000) hang in the balance. I hope anyone that sees #Whitina knows that it is for the DREAMers, that it is for la Raza and making sure we are seen. I hope they know we are all in this together, no matter the outcome.