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Gautam Chopra’s ‘Licorice’ Authentically Explores Themes of Self-Acceptance and Isolation

When watching a film, reading a book, or witnessing events throughout the world, it is human nature to inject oneself into the forefront. The question of “Who would I be in this scenario?” is a ancillary version of the larger question “Who am I?” Gautam Chopra, a film studies professor at Boston College, seeks to bring these ideas to the screen in his latest film Licorice, a uniquely-stylized coming-of-age film.

After hitting a dog in the street, a girl named Pinky (Nivita Chaliki) follows the animal into the backyard. Soon she finds the owners, Mike (Eli Goykhman) and Tara (Emily Pattison), who happen to be fellow classmates at her high school. After confronting her peers, Pinky embarks on an internal journey of value and self-worth. As she grapples with external forces passing judgement on her, Pinky must weigh in on herself in this relativistically-oriented world.

Drawing inspiration from films such as The Ice Storm (1994), Sex, Lies & Videotape (1989), and Wendy and Lucy (2008), Licorice speaks to many similar themes of intimacy and personal growth, while bringing its own voice to issues both modern and outside of time. The notion of figuring out who one is is not a new question, but remains timeless and difficult to answer.

The short film had its origins in other film ideas Chopra was investigating. Thought to be a part of a larger, feature length film, the events captured in Licorice originally stemmed from an idea about a woman in her 30s. The events were, therefore, part of the past. Chopra soon found that this auxiliary story was packed with enough substance to warrant its rendering as a short film.

From an early planning stage, Chopra made it clear that this film would steer away from any melodrama or inauthentic forays into the problems of youth. To achieve this, he wondered whether the story should revolve around a hyper-specific series of events or broader themes that would connect to the largest audience. This line of reasoning resulted in a seemingly paradoxical conclusion—the more specific the story becomes, the broader the appeal.

“I was afraid people would laugh at how these specific things or the way these characters act,” Chopra said. “But when you are afraid to say something, usually that means you are on the right track.”

He elaborated further that those uncomfortable, uncanny aspects of life, found in these characters, are more likely to elicit an emotional response. Specificity in a story lends itself to that goal. The idiosyncratic nature of these characters is established, therefore, when we put ourselves in their shoes—they feel lived in.

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Within this smaller, specific framework, the imperative became creating authentic and wholesome rendition of these characters. Much of this depended on the performance elicited from the actors. Despite both writing and directing the film, he found that the casting of the film became the lengthiest process.

Initially, Chopra thought of casting older, more seasoned actors to play these younger characters, but he feared the adjustment would not reflect the more nuanced sentiments and affect the emotional connect of the film. Despite deciding to “go for it”  by casting younger actors, the contentious relationship between younger actors, who might not yield desired performances, was a chief concern.

Pulling from local talent, and using his students as resources, the film was able to land young actors who could accurately portray the characters as Chopra saw fit. Joe LaRocca, a film studies professor at BC who served as assistant director on the film, described how these worries soon fell to the wayside once a suitable cast had been found.

“I was nervous about having teen actors,” LaRocca said. “But they were more professional than I was.”

In film, many choose to stay away from the unpredictability of animals and children. But, as LaRocca described, Chopra was able to integrate them in a masterful way that fully takes advantage of the talents and demeanor of younger actors on screen.

Though Chopra had developed an image of what the characters, namely Pinky, would be like through the writing process, he still was surprised when he found the characters continued to evolve during and throughout the casting process.

“I had a specific vision about who this girl was and how she would act in certain situations,” Chopra said. “But the actress [Chaliki] helped expand my view of the character.”

This kind of adaptive thinking echoes the openness to change and personal development seen throughout the film.

Thematically, the film is especially pertinent in this day and age. Self-worth and stacking up to others proves to be a more pressing issue as technology facilitates the comparison. This is where the specificity best lends itself, as the problems being seen on screen are reflective of a reality off of it.

“The film really looks at what people are feeling,” Chopra said. “Constantly competing on Instagram and Facebook, constantly asking, ‘How do I stack up?’”

This onslaught of comparison undoubtedly influences one’s perceptions knowingly or unknowingly, especially among the younger populations. These woes may seem fleeting or decursive, but their ramifications remain all too real to many. Though touching on many issues including sex, marginalization, and isolation, Licorice sees one simple, yet powerful sentiment come to light—listen to yourself, not other people.

Aesthetically, Chopra described the film as handsome with a beautiful collage of browns, greys, and light blues. The work of art director Elissa Nechamkin, the art team of Caroline Witts, and production designer Ilana Galpert, supplied sets that were a resounding force in their own right on screen. Just as important, the world these characters live in must be as authentic as the characters themselves.

Lending to the overall feel of haze and uncertainty laced throughout the film’s narrative, the sets bolstered the narrative effort.

Regarding a different aspect of production, fog played an important role in furthering this metaphor. The fog machine was a more visual way of creating atmosphere in a crisp way that compounds the ideas being played out around it.

“You can see the air and it gives the film a nostalgic feel while still keeping the images sharp and clear,” LaRocca said. “Additionally, the fog works well as a metaphor for the mind of the teen, although that was not something we talked about before shooting.”

Throughout the creative process, interestingly, Chopra himself admitted the directorial process again brought him into an interesting frame of mind. Even an experienced filmmaker and professor could get nervous when helming such a creative undertaking.

“I felt like I was a student again—learning,” he said. “Each time you are confronted with a blank page and everyone is asking you what to do. I felt like I was back at that place again.”

Seemingly referential to the plight of its characters, the entirety of the creative process and the film itself is one of discovery. Just as a story is pieced together and brought to fruition on camera, so too are our lives are penned before our eyes.

Expect to see Licorice sometime before March as it enters its later stages of post-production.

Licorice is poised to be a story equipped to make compelling points without being heavy-handed or overly reticent. The universal notions of self-discovery and evaluation are certain to resonate to some extent within all viewers. Efficaciously creating three-dimensional characters in the span of a short film furthers the aims of the film—that struggles of all ages, of all degrees of brevity, can be just as poignant and compelling.

Featured Image Courtesy of Gautam Chopra

January 18, 2017