When we get caught up in the tempestuous waves of today’s scarily surreal socio-political shitstorm, cinema offers us a lighthouse guiding us back to our shared humanity. This is the premise by which Barry Rivers and his dutiful team of cinephiles present the movies that make up this year’s Maui Film Festival. Just as they’ve done for the last 17 years, Rivers and company searched high and low for the latest independent films that tell us who are we, why we’re here and what we’re going to do about it. The result is five days of life-affirming movies in some of Maui’s most spectacular settings, along with star tributes, filmmaker panels and–time to break out your nicest slippahs and sundresses, people!–galas.
The first such story that Rivers welcomed into the 18th annual Maui Film Festival is Grand Unified Theory, which screens ever-so-appropriately under the stars at the Celestial Cinema on the festival’s opening night. Grand Unified Theory follows the family of an ambitious astrophysicist during one calamitous weekend. The film was written, directed and co-produced by David Ray, a Vancouver-based filmmaker who’s known for his extensive work with the SyFy Channel. He fell in love with science fiction as a way to speak to pressing issues, and explore topics that aren’t freely addressed in other genres.
“I was inspired by Blade Runner back in the day,” Ray said. “That movie explored what it meant to be human, and the difference between good and evil in a very practical way. The so-called hero of the movie shoots a woman in the back! His nemesis, the enemy, is trying to get to his god, so to speak, he’s trying to understand what it means to be alive. It’s a really complex, deep, philosophical undercurrent to a very exciting, action-oriented story. And I love looking to the future as it inspires me now to think about where we’re heading.”
Through his work with the SyFy Channel, Ray would often consult with astrophysicists and get an ear full of “wicked” theories. The idea came to him to explain human behavior through the lens of psychology and religion. He began looking at the core materials that we’re built of, and the building blocks of how we behave. In writing the story for Grand Unified Theory, Ray wanted to frame the family’s crazy behavior through the prism of how wildly our subatomic particles act.
“The very physics of our existence is a really weird and wonderful thing,” he said.
“You know, magic and science, Democrats and Republicans–there’s a place where we all meet,” said Ray. “That’s what we tried to do with the story. Family is a microcosm of all these different perspectives: teenagers and mothers and fathers, and everyone’s got their own axe to grind. Everyone’s got their own dreams. This is a fractious world we’re living in. I think it’s just really important to be reminded that we’re kind of all in this together.”
As the astrophysicist’s wife and mother to two teenagers in Grand Unified Theory, Rita (played by the outstanding Vancouver-based actress Kendall Cross) is at a crossroads. Her children are becoming adults, her husband is about to embark on his dream job and everybody seems to be moving on with their lives without her.
“She’s struggling with what her new role is in this family, which I think for a lot of moms, when you go from doing this job everyday all the time to suddenly them not really needing you it’s gotta be a little bit lonely or confusing,” said Cross. “She’s stuck trying to figure out what’s next for her. She’s jealous of her husband because of the opportunities he’s had, and she’s also given up her career in order to be a stay-at-home mom. She’s struggling with feeling sexy and beautiful and wanted and that sort of thing as well.”
Cross hopes that moviegoers will see something familiar in the film that will make them laugh, possibly relate to things that will make them cry and leave in the end feeling really good.
“There’s one question that Andrew McNee’s character [‘Victor’] asks in the movie,” she said, “and it’s ‘What do you want more than anything in the world?’ What deep, deep in your soul do you want out of life? I think that question resonates right to the end. I hope everyone walks out of there, really going home and thinking about that question. And I think that it’ll make you maybe approach your life a little differently.”
Grand Unified Theory screens at the Celestial Cinema in Wailea at 10pm on Wednesday, June 21. For more information go to Mauifilmfestival.com.