Director Lauren Minnerath joins us to talk about her new short film, Clare, ahead of its screening at SXSW 2022.
When 17-year-old Clare and her best friend sneak away from a high school talent show to vape in the locker room, they discover their teacher, Mrs. Larsson, has also snuck away to cry. As Clare tries to reach out to Mrs. Larsson over what she saw, it becomes apparent that their lives are intertwined in ways that go beyond a simple student-teacher relationship.
Clare draws on some of your experiences growing up in rural Minnesota. Can you tell us about that time in your life and how it influenced Clare?
That’s a hard question to answer, because I’m not even really that sure. The short is adapted from a feature script I wrote that’s currently in development. When I started the feature I just had a general idea of where it was going, but it came out of me quickly as I wrote because all these memories and anecdotes from that time in my life came flooding back in and helped me fill in the details.
I grew up in a small town that was about two and a half hours north of the Twin Cities metro area. Minnesota is a blue state, but that red/blue urban/rural divide is still very much a thing there, so my area was conservative and traditional. Protecting the status quo at all costs, even to the detriment of others, was pervasive and I think is a pretty big theme in the short. You definitely weren’t supposed to talk about certain things that I find openly discussed among my circles in Brooklyn, and there’s a bit of a consensus that the seedier aspects of life happen in “other places”.
I wasn’t cut off from civilization, but I had this general feeling of a bigger world out there and felt a lack of access to it. If you weren’t sure conservative small town life was right for you then there wasn’t a lot of exposure to what the alternatives might be. I remember feeling out of place, and I don’t mean that in an elitist, special snowflake way. I just genuinely felt like I was constantly trying to assimilate. My home life was also pretty contentious, so combine that with struggling to fit in with the larger community and alienation defines a lot of your adolescence.
That being said, I had a great group of friends who are still some of the smartest, funniest, most interesting people I’ve ever met. Some of my happiest memories are of mildly rebelling against the status quo in my teenage years. The nice thing about writing about that period in your life when you’re 10 – 15 years removed from it is it gives you the perspective to look back on it through a more nuanced lens. There are definitely some jabs taken at some of the quirks of the region in both the short and the feature, but none of it is meant to be mean-spirited. I think everything still feels real and complex.
The film follows a school senior grappling with an inappropriate relationship with a teacher. Can you tell us more about the dynamic between Clare and Mrs. Larsson, and what you explore through them?
Their dynamic is the central relationship in the feature, but in the short they don’t get much screen time together since it begins in the aftermath of their affair and Mrs. Larsson is trying to pretend nothing happened. It’s really more about Clare’s relationship with Mrs. Larsson’s husband.
I think the irony of the film is that even though Clare is the child and Mrs. Larsson is the adult, there is very little accountability taken by her and her husband. Both just want to brush the entire situation under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. There is no humility, no mea culpa, no acknowledgement of the harm caused — just go away so I don’t have to think about it or deal with the consequences. That behavior is so self-involved and childish, but also so common.
We’re largely used to seeing male perpetrators on screen. Why did you chose a female for this story?
When I initially conceived of the idea the teacher was a man. It was inspired by a statutory relationship between a former high school classmate of mine and a coach that came to light years later. At the time I was in therapy dealing with exploitative experiences I had early in my career, so stories about power imbalances were resonating with me. I told a friend about the idea and he went, “When I was in high school a female gym teacher was caught having a relationship with a female student. What if the teacher was a woman?”
I realized we’ve become so conditioned to seeing a male authority figure be inappropriate with young girls that if the teacher were a man the audiences’ antennas would immediately perk up as soon as the two are alone together. With the teacher being a woman, the shift in their relationship is a lot more subtle and helps put you in the perspective of a child being groomed. Even in the short, where you just see the aftermath, that effect is there because the audience goes through a longer period of discovery as the truth of their relationship unravels. I also think too few films address the damage women are capable of inflicting on other women in a realistic, nuanced way, and I’d like to see more of that.
Clare was shot in snowy conditions. How was the shoot and working with this crew?
It was chaos. We were over an hour behind schedule and the snowstorm caught us by surprise. I was basically running around the backyard of the location with my DP, sound guy and actress, trying to shoot around the crews’ footprints and just praying we’d be able to get what we needed. But I also knew in the back of my brain that it would probably look amazing on camera, and it did.
It feels serendipitous in a way, because the film is set in Minnesota but we shot it in New York during a warm, snowless winter. I remember location scouting and thinking, “Are people going to buy a snowless Minnesota around Christmas time?” Then, the one day of the year it snowed we happened to be shooting outside. And not piddly snow either. The big fat flakes that drift to the ground and look great on camera. I feel really lucky.
How was your experience collaborating with lead actors Sophie Rossman (Clare) and Lizzy Plimpton (Mrs. Larsson) on such a sensitive subject?
It was great! Both were super low key and professional. We did one rehearsal before the shoot but honestly, it probably wasn’t even necessary. I also gave Sophie a copy of the feature and talked about it with her before the shoot so she’d have a better understanding of the character. The subject matter might be sensitive but Sophie knew what was going on and we didn’t have to talk around it or anything. I’ve worked with actors as young as 9 and just direct them the way I would anyone else. I think kids and young people can tell when you’re talking down to them and a no bullshit approach is best.
What are your hopes for Clare at SXSW and beyond?
I want to have a good time with my cast and crew, eat some good food and shoot the feature in the near future.