By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
EASTON, Mass. — It’s a situation many families across America have faced: a young daughter wants to go out with an older boy from high school but her parents don’t feel she is mature enough yet. What to do?
That question is answered in “Family Dinner,” a new faith-based film now available on DVD from Family Theater Productions.
The 28-minute drama shows how a Mexican-American family deals with a sensitive issue involving teen-age daughter Cristina. She is insistent on dating a popular senior named Lukas at school, but her parents want her to wait until she is 16.
Paralleling the fifth Luminous Mystery, the Institution of the Eucharist, “Family Dinner” is the latest release from the production company founded by the famed “Rosary Priest” and Servant of God Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., more than 65 years ago.
“Our whole push at Family Theater Productions is to help families pray, so part of what we’re doing here is using the media to strengthen that message,” said Anthony J. Sands, senior producer at Family Theater and writer-director of “Family Dinner.”
“Beyond that, one of our producers said something that stuck with me — that we hadn’t yet had one of these (videos) on dating,” Sands added. “And they said don’t kill anybody. It seems like a grandmother or sibling or someone always dies in one of these videos.”
Perfectly cast in the role of Cristina is up-and-coming actress Paulina Cerrilla, who was a contestant on season three of NBC’s “The Voice” in 2012, appearing as a member of the team mentored by Christina Aguilera.
Cerrilla is also a Covergirl model for the Hispanic market and recently appeared in the independent short film “String Theory.”
“I first found out about (‘Family Dinner’) online and thought this was something I would like to be involved in,” Cerrilla told The Anchor. “I knew it was a Catholic company and — being a Catholic — I thought why not do what I love to do and spread a positive message while doing it? I sent my submission in and, thankfully, they found me and liked me and I got cast.”
Not only did the fact that it was a Catholic production help to draw Cerrilla in, but also the “quality of the writing,” she said.
“I loved how it included themes of family and of dating and of sacrificial love,” Cerrilla said. “They’re all very important themes and I’d like to be associated with spreading that message.”
For Sands, casting Cerrilla in the role was a great blessing for the production.
“God is good,” he said. “We put out a call for a young woman who is 18 or older who could play someone in her teens, is Latina, and can speak Spanish. In a week I had 2,000 submissions for that role alone. It was like trying to find a diamond in the rough. But one of the amazing things about Los Angeles is that it’s such a cutting-edge place. You can sometimes find some great talent out there.”
But when Sands first saw Cerrilla’s audition photo — one of those ubiquitous Hollywood “head shots” — he admitted he wasn’t sure she’d be right for the part.
“I saw a photo of a fair-skinned girl with red hair and freckles applying to play a Latina and I thought to myself, what is going on here?” he said.
Thankfully, Sands took the advice of his producer, Father David Guffey, C.S.C., and auditioned Cerrilla.
“I asked her if she could do a Spanish accent and she said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m full-blooded Mexican!’” Sands said, laughing. “She immediately rattled off a couple of lines in Spanish and I said to myself: ‘Thank You, Jesus!’”
“I actually am a Mexican redhead — we do exist,” said Cerrilla, whose hair remains the dark brown color of her character, Cristina. “My mother is a redhead and my entire family has red hair. It’s ridiculous; we come in all colors. Taste the rainbow of Mexico!”
Jokingly blaming the Holy Spirit for inspiring him to come up with the idea for “Family Dinner,” Sands said he wanted to do something that was very contemporary and reflected a common concern for families.
“One of the things I’ve noticed, especially in my years working in youth ministry, is that families are often so busy (today) they rarely eat together anymore,” he said. “And when they do eat together, they are often busy looking at their cellphones or other types of media.”
With the framework of the family meal in place, the award-winning writer-director began to draw parallels between the sacrifices that family members make for each other and the ultimate Sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
“We wanted to drive home the idea of the complete giving of oneself, just as Christ gives of Himself completely in the Eucharist,” Sands said. “We consume Him and He becomes one with us. There are parallels to how parents give themselves completely to the family and how daughters and sons, in return, give back.”
The notion that “the source and summit” of our encounter with Christ revolves around a meal wasn’t lost on Sands, either, and he said that it makes sense that one of the key opportunities for a family to sit down and interact is at the dinner table.
“Lastly, and this is a big one for us, is the idea of service,” he said. “Part of John’s Gospel is the recounting of the washing of the feet (at the Last Supper). Well how many times do parents, without ever getting proper thanks, wash the feet of their children every day? What we need to do is to recognize how much we need to wash the feet of each other. If we’re going to be like Christ — and if we want true love — that’s what we need to follow.”
Although advancements such as computers and smartphones can sometimes bear the brunt of the blame for distracting people from the more important things in life, Cerrilla has learned to embrace technology.
“I realize that in order to reach people, you pretty much have to go where they are, and where they are is on social media,” she said. “They’re on YouTube, they’re on Twitter; you need to reach them through movies and the Internet. Having grown up surrounded by technology, I realize that’s the most effective way to reach people.”
Since her appearance on “The Voice” two years ago, the Mexican-American from Texas has maintained a regular online connection with her fans through Facebook, Twitter and via YouTube videos of her music that have been seen by tens of millions of viewers.
And she’s never shied away from sharing her beliefs or faith, either.
“I share my talents online, I share my passions with them, I share my thoughts and ideas, and now I get to share my faith with them,” she said. “So that’s something that’s really special to me. I’ve never hidden it, but this is something where I can do what I love to do — which is create — and share a very personal and integral part of who I am.”
Having just turned 19, it’s rare to find a successful young woman in Hollywood who is so devoted and openly committed to her faith.
“It’s not that difficult for me,” Cerrilla said. “I just make sure I’m very anchored in my faith. It’s all about approach. If you’re unsure or you’re worrying about what people will think of you, then perhaps your approach won’t be as confident. It’s more important to be proud of what you believe in and then people will be a little bit more open to discussion. That’s why I’m so excited about this film.”
For Sands, who has worked on about a dozen Family Theater Productions over the years, there seems to be a resurgence in the popularity of faith-based films in Hollywood of late and the timing is right for something like “Family Dinner.”
“There was an element in Hollywood where it was an embarrassing thing to admit: ‘Oh, I’m a Christian or I’m Catholic,’” he said. “Now it’s once again acceptable to make something that’s clearly adhering to those morals and remains marketable. So it’s refreshing not to have to overcome that. I hope it’s something that becomes common in Hollywood.”
As mutual fans of Pope Francis and his call to use all available media to evangelize, Cerrilla and Sands think projects like “Family Dinner” can inspire youth to become more involved in the Church.
“I love how a lot of young people are really listening to Pope Francis and coming to the faith,” Cerrilla said. “Even people who weren’t born into the faith are taking notice and that’s what it’s all about — it’s about outreach. I’m doing it in my way with the film and he’s doing it in his way, and he’s doing it beautifully.”
“What’s great is Pope Francis is putting a very human face on the faith, too,” Sands added.
Calling God “the great scheduling planner,” Sands said Cerrilla’s casting in “Family Dinner” has already led to her involvement in two more Family Theater Productions projects.
“We had two more films with strong female roles, so we needed to put someone in there who could deliver great performances and we offered them to Paulina and she graciously agreed, so it’s worked out incredibly well,” he said. “They’ve been shot and are both in post-production now. They’re already ‘in the can,’ as they say.”
Having relished their collaboration on “Family Dinner,” Cerrilla was only too eager to repeat the experience.
“For me, working with Family Theater Productions is a thrill — are you kidding?” she said. “I’m happy, I’m working, and I’m doing what I love to do. One of my favorite things in the whole world is to be working on a set and to be able to do something that is faith-based with a positive message is just incredible. This is a pretty good partnership.”
For more information about “Family Dinner,” visit www.HCFMstore.org, where you can view the trailer and order copies of the DVD at a discounted price through December 25. You can also order the DVD by calling 800-299-7729.