It could be some kind of paradise, The Edward R. Mill School for Boys. The landscape is green, near tropical, lush — for the traumatized lost boys in this relatively unsupervised natural environment, a place to claim as their own. But A.V.Rockwell’s trenchant, astonishingly accomplished short, Feathers, is not about the replication of uncritical transcendentalist tropes. Against scenes of the school’s newest student, Elizier (Shavez Frost), enduring hazing by the island’s other youth while flashing back to the memories of his father’s shooting death by police, Rockwell lays a nondiegetic soundtrack of urgent fundraising cold calls by the school’s headmaster — entreaties invariably responded to with disinterested silence. The school’s ramshackle facilities and lack of staff speak less to a permissive freedom and more to apathy toward the mental health of a generation of young black men who are suffering.
“That duality is something I intentionally wanted to play with,” says the New York–based writer/director. “[These are] boys found boundless and liberated, who could in theory come together and heal on their own terms, but at the same time that comes with consequences.” And if there’s a hint of Peter Pan in Feathers, Rockwell says that’s intentional: “They are kind of like the Lost Boys,” she says. “They face the predicament of not being able to grow up for dire reasons because of the trauma that has affected men of color. As a community, we experience these issues generation by generation and systematically, through slavery, Jim Crow… Police brutality is the newest dialogue. When people are dying live on Facebook, and it still doesn’t change? A child like Eli who sees that nobody is doing anything about it — how does that affect how you move through the world?”
Rockwell shot Feathers in New Orleans with DP Chris Soos. “We were very much ’in the moment,’” she says, “not doing heavy planning with our shot lists. We wanted to discover as we moved along. The environment should be beautiful but at the same time overwhelming and inescapable — like racism and the things we battle as people of color. I wanted to put that antagonism onto the boys, so a lot of the conversations are [shot] tight and feel claustrophobic, even though it’s a wide open space.”
Raised in Queens, New York, Rockwell found her earliest artistic expression directing high school theater. She attended NYU undergrad, majoring in communications, taking some film courses, and teaching herself how to direct by producing herself a series of ten shorts, Open City Mixtape, about New York’s inner city life. The shorts drew the attention of music video reps, and supporters like Spike Lee and Alicia Keys, whose music scores her 2016 richly textured 22-minute short, The Gospel. She went back to NYU to attend its graduate film program on a full scholarship but took a break to make the Tribeca Film Institute–supported Feathers — which premiered at TIFF (and where it was bought by Fox Searchlight) before playing Sundance this year.
Most recently, Rockwell attended the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs with what should be her debut feature project, A Thousand and One Nights, which, she says, “follows a young woman and her son as they try to rebuild their relationship in a city that’s changing around them.”— SM/Photo by Giancarlo Valentine
Rick Cook and Ashley Holland at WME