The beginning of a new feature film about coming of age in Brownsville is heading to the world stage, thanks to Brownsville-born filmmaker Elaine Del Valle.
The first part of Del Valle's film Brownsville Bred has been selected to appear in Austin, Texas, this coming March at the global SXSW film and arts festival.
In it, Del Valle tells a story based on her own life growing up in 1980s Brownsville.
The main character, a "spunky Latina," must find her own path as she grapples with grim truths about her musician father who she once idolized, and about her place in the neighborhood, too.
But far from trading on misnomers about Brownsville, Del Valle wants to present the neighborhood as the multi-faceted character that it is.
"What I like people to understand is that when people rise in their journey from places like Brownsville, it's not in spite of where they come from, it's because of where they come from," she told BK Reader.
"It's such a unique experience, I wanted to give people insight into that and that it actually builds strength and character."
Del Valle first produced her story as an autobiographical stage play, then adapted it into a young adult novel.
Soon after, Del Valle won a grant from WarnerMedia 150 that allowed her to film the first part of the movie in Brownsville this past summer, with her main character as an eight-year-old.
The trailer opens with shots of Brownsville's Langston Hughes towers, a graffitied train and a vivacious kid named Elaine (played by Summer Rose Castillo), who rocks a yellow T-shirt and bangs as she declares: "Everybody has a story, and this one is mine – 301 Sutter Avenue, between Rockaway and Mother Gaston, Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York."
So far, the making of the film has been full of coincidences, Del Valle said.
The first actress to sign onto the film was Emmy-nominated Susanna Guzman (The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), who will play Elaine's abuela, and who happens to be born-and-raised in Brownsville.
"It's hard to get actors of this calibre to be in independent films," Del Valle said. "But she was more than onboard. I hired her not because she's born in Brownsville, but because she's the best person for the role."
The next coincidence happened when Del Valle was looking to cast her Papi figure — a young Elaine's father.
A producer suggested she consider Javier Muñoz who played Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton and Usnavi de la Vega in In the Heights. Del Valle was already a big fan, but when she checked him out on Instagram that day, she was sold.
"He was on a train by himself in New York in the middle of the pandemic, and he was just talking to the camera asking, 'What does somebody do when you’re on the train alone in NYC?' And then he burst into song," Del Valle recalled.
"I felt so much joy just emanating from him. I knew this was the character, this is Papi, this is the overwhelming joy and love and music that existed in my father."
After talking to him, she discovered Muñoz actually grew up in East New York, just minutes from her.
Muñoz said the film captures what it was like for him growing up in East New York.
"Only someone who was from the neighborhood, from this time, could capture it the way she's captured it," he said.
"I fell in love with these characters and the story she's trying to tell and the joy she's trying to bring to what it was like growing up in those circumstances because it wasn't all bad, you know?"
Brownsville Bred is set to show at SXSW in the Episodic Pilot Competition, a pilot showcase introducing fresh work from new talent, many with an eye towards finding completion funds.
Del Valle said she sees the film being built from "four acts," and she is hoping the showing of the first part does bring backers to complete the film soon.
"I'll be picking up a camera again in Brownsville in 2022 to move forward to the completion of this," she said.
"I believe SXSW is going to really draw the attention of others who will make this as big as it can and should be."