“Ever since I was a kid, I comforted myself with stories,” says Seattle-based director Shawn Telford. “I grew up in a very isolated, rural B.F.E. Our nearest neighbor was a half-mile away. Making up stories was how I comforted myself in that isolation.”
B.F.E. stands for Bum Fuck, Egypt—shorthand for any one of hundreds of backwater suburbs in America. It’s a place in the metaphoric middle of nowhere, where a pervasive sense of ennui gradually erodes adolescent restlessness until residents become an apathetic part of the scenery. It’s also the title of Telford’s first feature, a debut that captures suburban existence and the soul-death that accompanies it to a cannabis-hazed T.
Telford broke out of his personal B.F.E. of Post Falls, Idaho several years ago when he moved to Seattle and earned an MFA in acting at the University of Washington. After making the rounds as a character actor on Seattle stages (“I was called the poor man’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman,” he laughs), he got into filmmaking because, he says, “I’m an out-of-work actor, and I was tired of waiting around for the phone to ring.” A desire for more direct creative control likewise motivated him: His UW Senior Thesis, a solo show breaking down the anatomy of a date, stirred a lot of interest amongst several of his filmmaker friends, but “they all had ideas of how to change it, and I didn’t agree with any of them, so I thought I’d just do it.”
Telford completed the short, cut his teeth on other short films, and gained “a film-school’s worth of experience” by participating in SIFF’s Fly Filmmaking Challenge in 2009. Then he returned to Post Falls to shoot The Last Virgin, the 26-minute short film which formed the nucleus of B.F.E. The story of a drunken teenagers’ party possessed enough raw potential to be crafted into a more elaborate tapestry involving a put-upon kid (Ian Lerch), several of his friends, and his grandfather (Wally Dalton), and the crew filmed the feature over three successive summers in the director’s old stomping grounds. “I shot in my home where I grew up,” he says. “Grampa’s house is the house where I grew up. That’s my parents’ bedroom and my parents’ basement, and the shooting range in the movie is actually where I got married.”
Little details inform B.F.E. and its characters. Teenagers get high, do brodies in abandoned construction sites, steal beer from convenience stores, and blow up milk jugs with shotguns to ease the boredom, and any viewer who’s endured an adolescence in their own B.F.E. will see sharply-drawn reflections of real-life equivalents. But the movie, Telford says, isn’t autobiographical. “The characters are informed by me just being a lifetime observer of human behavior,” he says. “As I’ve gotten older, that’s gotten more specific. When people are talking, I’m always intrigued by what they’re actually saying.”
That distinction makes B.F.E. one of SIFF 2014’s most wonderful discoveries. Telford’s characters—most of them adolescents still figuring out who they are—convey worlds in their awkwardly expressive faces, and they talk over each other with real-world spontaneity. Dalton’s Grampa, for one, provides some of B.F.E’s biggest laughs, but he’s no caricature: Like the kids surrounding him, he’s indulging a sudden interest in partying and taking drugs to do something—anything—to get the hell out of this place.
B.F.E. also sports a gorgeous visual aesthetic that alternately romanticizes and lays bare the dead-end nature of suburbia (think Dazed and Confused meeting the picturesque beauty of Badlands). Telford readily admits that his sensibility leans away from formulaic commercial filmmaking.
“I understand that you’re making a commodity when you’re doing films. You have to make money, and that’s the nature of the beast,” he says. “But you just don’t get a lot of beauty in [mainstream] films. Robert Altman, Truffaut, Fellini, and Hal Ashby were important to me as I developed my filmmaking skills. All of those guys had a lot of love in their lens. In B.F.E, I tried to look at a place with that kind of compassion.”
B.F.E. screens at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 2 and 3, at the Harvard Exit. Tickets can be purchased at www.siff.net.