Philadelphia filmmakers have shown us so many sides of the city — from Rocky’s run through the Italian Market and beyond to the gorgeous lights of Boathouse Row at night in Philadelphia to Bruce Willis’ pristine redbrick house in The Sixth Sense.
What about North Philly’s Badlands – and its working poor?
A far rarer sight on screen, this is the troubled landscape of Mark Webber’s latest film, Flesh and Blood, a semiautobiographical drama that has the indie film director revisit his old stomping grounds, where he grew up in abject poverty.
Webber’s fourth film as a writer, director, producer, and star, Flesh and Blood features members of the filmmaker’s actual family, including his mom, Cheri Honkala, an outspoken antipoverty activist who ran as the Green Party vice presidential nominee in 2012. This year, she lost a bid to be state representative from North Philly’s 197th district.
Webber, 37, plays a recovering drug addict who moves in with his mother (Honkala) and his 13-year-old half-brother, Guillermo (played by his actual half-brother Guillermo Santos) ,after serving a five-year stretch in prison. The movie costars Madeline Brewer, the Pitman-raised actress who has received critical acclaim for her roles in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, in which she played the tragic Trish in the first season, and Hulu’s award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale.
That fictional frame is used to explore the family’s very real — and very raw — relationships as well as the issues that they struggle with daily. Guillermo, for example, is shown struggling to maintain his studies despite his handicaps. “He has Asperger’s, which is on the autism continuum, and he also has had narcolepsy all his life,” Honkala said.
Honkala’s two sons travel parallel character arcs. Guillermo reconciles with his dad, Guillermo Santos Sr., who has had a lifelong battle with drug addiction. For his part, Webber’s character tracks down his own father, Mark Webber Sr., who had abandoned Honkala more than 30 years earlier.
“I call this reality cinema,” Webber said in a phone interview from Los Angeles where he lives with wife, actress Teresa Palmer, and their two sons.
“A year before shooting [Flesh and Blood], I saw my father for the first time since I was 5 years old, and, as it was playing out, I thought, ‘Man, I wish I was filming this,’ ” said Webber.
“I walked away from that thinking I needed to make a film about family, about what family means and to make it about my own family — and actually use them in the film.”
So what’s reality cinema? Webber’s approach has little to do with reality TV, which hypes up daily goings-on so they seem earth-shattering. Webber’s cinema is certainly scripted and structured, but it doesn’t hype the quotidian events and patterns of life. Instead, Webber strips these event down, the better to lay bare difficult truths.
“Clearly, it’s not a vanity film,” he said. “It’s above all about vulnerability, and it … [demanded] that my family fully open their hearts and lay bare their souls,” Webber said. “It was just such a gift for my family and my community in North Philly to participate.”
Honkala, 54, said the shoot, which took place in the small apartment where she and Guillermo actually live, was emotionally grueling.
“You know it was a lesson in my letting go because,” she said. “[Mark and I] are two very strong people, and I knew I am used to directing him because I am his mother, so the idea of my son directing me was tough.”
She said the film doesn’t merely focus on the dynamics of one family, but also takes pains to explore fundamental social issues. “[Webber] is using his filmmaking, his tools, and his very loud voice to call attention to issues like mass incarceration and addiction,” she said. “One of the things it shows is that single moms have backstories. They didn’t wake up one day and decide to be welfare queens. It shows the experiences they went through.”
Honkala said people tend to forget that wealth isn’t a birthright. That a twist of fate can shatter anyone’s world.
“I was talking to Guillermo’s grandmother in Puerto Rico the other day. They had a nice house, and his grandfather had a dentist’s office in Arecibo, and now it’s all gone,” she said, because of Hurricane Maria. “They don’t even have a photograph left.”
Flesh and Bone brings these lessons home by recounting Honkala’s own story. “People find out in this film that I met Mark’s dad when I was 15 and he was 15 years older,” she said.
Webber remembers those early years vividly. Once his dad left, he and his mom descended deeper into poverty.
“The first time we became homeless — we went through two periods — I was 10. We went homeless for a full year that time, and we stayed in abandoned buildings [and] abandoned cars,” he said.
Now a father, Webber is struck by the different life he’s able to give his own family.
“I was homeless when I was basically the age that my oldest son is right now. He’s 9. And I have been reflecting on that time period a lot … and I’ve been trying to remember the experience of those years, and it’s actually been really inspirational.”
Honkala said she finds it amusing that her son has lived at the two extreme poles of the income disparity in America.
“For Mark, I think it was difficult when he first went to Hollywood. … It was like winning the lottery, and he had a tough time dealing with it,” she said. “He didn’t develop a drug addiction until he went to Hollywood.”
The culture shock was staggering.
“He used to say, ‘Mom, they talk more about their dogs than about their children out here,’ ” she said.
Honkala was shocked when Webber flew her out for an on-set visit.
“It was staggering to see the abundance in Hollywood and the waste. Just the crafts service table they have out for everyone on set has more abundance of food than you could imagine.”
She added, “And then you come back here, and you have people calling you saying, ‘Cheri, I need to get my baby some formula, can you help me get some formula?’ ”
Flesh and Blood
Philadelphia Film Festival screening Saturday, Oct. 21, at Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street.
Information: 215-422-4970, filmadelphia.org.