Real to Reel

Minnesota filmmaker Wendell Jon Andersson has devoted the better part of his youth to creating his debut feature, With or Without You

When filmmaker Wendell Jon Andersson describes himself as "a pretty average white kid from Minnesota" and "not the deepest person in the world," he isn't being falsely modest, constructively masochistic, or nicely Minnesotan. He's just being himself--which happens to be a deeper story than it seems. Not unlike his debut feature, the romantic comedy-drama With or Without You, Wendell Andersson (no relation to our former governor) is a genuinely disarming type whose boyish appearance and affable demeanor are merely the first act of a plot that thickens over time, taking his audience unawares.

To wit: During the course of a lengthy interview at my house last week, I watched the young writer-director repeatedly fill a McDonald's cup with Mountain Dew (never mind my glassware) before going on to speak maturely about everything from the corporate ownership of alt-weeklies and arthouses to the indieness of George Lucas and a woman's right to choose. Accordingly, With or Without You begins as a somewhat typical post-adolescent farce: Geek meets punk, falls head over heels, and gets dumped on his ass. But then the punk discovers she's pregnant with the geek's kid and decides to give it up for adoption, causing these mismatched partners (and the film) to reveal more than first met the eye. The fact that this seemingly superficial tale is Andersson's "emotional autobiography" further proves its point: Looks don't always tell the whole story. "I just wanted to make an entertaining comedy-drama," says Andersson, 32. The fact is, this humble first-time filmmaker has accomplished something more.

At first glance, this blond-haired and blue-eyed Minneapolitan Swede--a cross between Ron Howard and the young Max von Sydow--appears positively blessed. A native of St. Cloud and a graduate of MCAD, he won the local Blockbuster/McKnight Film Fund Award three years ago for his first script, With or Without You. Soon after, he was invited to workshop his draft at the Sundance Institute with screenwriters Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) and Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects); and when he came back to the Institute a few months later for its Directors' Lab, he earned best wishes from "the Bob" himself, Robert Redford.

Returning to Minneapolis, he shot the film in 24 days on a million-dollar budget (using leftover stock from James Cameron's Titanic, yet), edited it on the digital AVID system, and recruited Jed Alpert, the guy who sold Sling Blade to Miramax, to represent it. Andersson spent last week at the L.A. Independent Film Festival, where his was one of 26 features chosen to screen from among 1,200 submissions; and on Saturday he'll introduce With or Without You at St. Anthony Main as the closing-night feature of the Mpls./St. Paul Film Festival--before following up an open invitation to pitch a story treatment at Disney.

On paper, the wunderkind's quick rise reads like very good luck. But, just as Andersson calls With or Without You the story of how "we have to be whole people before we can give ourselves to someone else," the film would not have been possible without its maker's own dramatic coming-of-age. Twelve years ago, when he was a 20-year-old "geek-boy" who'd just dropped out of Augsburg's pre-architecture program, Andersson met "a wild and dangerous girl" named Stephanie Falls at the Dinkytown Pizza Hut where they were both working and immediately fell in love with her. To make a long story short: As their partnership led to unplanned pregnancy and, in turn, to marriage, Wendell and Stephanie made the painful decision to give their child up for adoption. Three years later, Andersson had a new baby: the first draft of his screenplay.

"My initial impulse to make the film was that I wanted my son to know how I felt when we placed him for adoption," Andersson explains, swallowing hard. "And actually, the whole film was born out of this," he says, pointing to a black and white photo of Stephanie holding the baby on the last day the couple saw him. "We went to the foster home to visit him and I brought my camera. As I was loading the film, I looked up and saw Steph holding the baby, staring out the window with this...this look that has haunted me ever since." Indeed, a reenacted version of this melancholy shot made its way into one of Andersson's Super-8 productions at MCAD, and it reappears near the end of With or Without You, as Stephanie's screen counterpart, Zoe (Marisa Ryan), takes a long last look at her newborn baby before letting him go.

One of the many remarkable things about With or Without You is how well it works as a women's picture despite being an autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young guy. In a brisk 100 minutes, the 18-year-old heroine metamorphoses from a tough, tattooed chick who smokes while screwing (that's the first scene) into, well, the near-perfect picture of drug-free, lily-white motherhood. But at no point does Andersson attempt to domesticate Zoe or turn her into the poster girl for an anti-abortion tract. (Believably, her decision is made largely through indecision.) And Marisa Ryan's brash, authentic, no-bullshit performance allows Andersson's insightful direction to seem all the sharper.

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