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Kate Llewellyn reviews Alan, written by, directed by and starring Bristol University English student – Sam Toller.

When finding out that the screening of a film called Alan made by a 3rd year English student was two hours long, I was relieved to find myself forgetting that I was attending only a semi-professional production within minutes of the opening scene.

Sam Toller, the writer, director and star of the film, succeeds in capturing the all too familiar dramas that define the final few months of school. From failing relationships, to A-level anxiety, to having memorised the response to the inevitably frequent question: ‘what are you going to do with your life’, the film is reminiscent of other coming-of-age classics like Submarine and Starter for Ten.

The groans and laughs from the audience paid homage to the fact that Sam has been brutally honest in his portrayal of those awkward, naive and overly-dramatic late-teen years. Scenes of all too familiar mistakes, when blown up on the big screen, are both relatable and painfully funny for those in the audience.

The line “I’m almost eighteen, I peaked at GCSEs!” was received with an all too knowing laugh as well as the painful-to-watch mistake of double texting a girlfriend who keeps asking for ‘space’.

Sam has expertly used the film medium to express the fears felt by so many teens at a point of uncertainty in their lives. The protagonist Alan drags himself in the first half of the film from scene to scene, lamenting his relationship problems and exam anxieties to everyone: from his best friend to his driving instructor. He receives sage advice from all the characters alongside the running theme of trying to keep things in perspective and to focus on the achievements you can control.

Alan pulls himself out of a post-break-up depression of staring at his bedroom ceiling and watching mindlessly violent films to start focusing on his coming exams and his driving test.

He quits his unhelpful habits of casual smoking and comfort eating and learns to start helping himself. He realises, as we all do at some point, that time is the best healer and that new opportunities lie just around the corner.

It seems Sam has done a brilliant job: his honesty in translating his own life experiences work well on the screen.

There are points in the film that feel overly cliché. The fact that every person in Alan’s life has some worldly philosophy to share while letting Alan obsess over his own problems instead of asking about his other friends’ well-being is a little tiresome by the end.

However, Sam admits that he has made a cheesy and over-dramatic film and that he wrote the script when he was going through very similar experiences at school.

“I wrote the script almost therapeutically when I was seventeen, but also by finding the comedy in what was happening to me I found it easier to process at the time.”

Impressively Sam has been making and starring in his own films since he was 14. In his own words: “I wanted to act, but none of my friends were making films so I thought f*** it. I’ll make one.”

These include a short three-minute superhero spoof called The Postman and countless music videos. He says that Alan is his most ambitious project yet.

“I’m very restless. A lot of the people who know me, watch the film and say they don’t know how I’ve had the stamina to stick with this one project. I’ve always got ideas in my head so the fact I’ve managed to see this one through feels like a big achievement.”

“Four years ago, when I first wrote the script I thought ‘this is funny’, but you don’t actually know if it is funny until four years later when you see people laugh.”

It seems Sam has done a brilliant job: his honesty in translating his own life experiences work well on the screen.

“When I wrote the script, I was very aware one day I could potentially make it. I thought to myself, ‘If I do want to make this one day, I want to keep it simple. No car chases, no explosions, it has to be very conversational.’ Two years later I had the realisation it was now or never, before real life gets in the way and before I’m too old to play myself.”

It’s certainly true that you can tell which directors Sam has been influenced by from the range of styles used in his film. There’s allusions to Edgar Wright’s jump cuts and editing for a tea-making scene, and a scene where Alan and his best friend are having a deep conversation overlooking the city at night that screams of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

There’s even a faint allusion to Wes Anderson’s famously quirky style, with the changes of location in the film being introduced with different postcards being tacked to a wall.

It’s almost serendipitous how the screening of Alan, a film about the fears of transitioning to a new unknown stage in life, has timed itself with Sam’s own graduation this year.

He admits that with the fears of leaving University “I found the editing of this film very therapeutic, there’s a lot of advice in there, which is becoming relevant again now. Often I’d come out of the editing room and have to tell myself to just take my own advice.”

When I ask what his plans are for the next year he says he’s planning on moving back home to London, and then pursuing a career in acting as well as writing as many scripts as possible and sending them off, hoping that one will stick.

Sam also talked about writing a script for a possible post-uni re-imagining of Fresh Meat as well as exploring a Seven-style horror film. As he puts it himself, “I’m very much a genre-hopper. I love immersing myself in a genre and seeing what I can do with it.”

By this point, Sam has been approached by numerous friends and cast members who are keen to chat to him about the film and congratulate him on the success of the screening, so I decide to wrap up our conversation with a question about what advice he would give to any other aspiring film-makers at Bristol.

“If you want to be a film-maker, stop saying you want to be a film maker and make some films’. That’s a quote from Robert Rodriguez, who directed ‘Spy Kids’ from a book of his that I read when I was about 14. It really stuck with me and since then that’s all I’ve been doing.”

“Another thing I’d say would be to create a good network, find someone who writes scripts, find some aspiring actors, collaborate and help each other out. But if you can’t do that, even if you just make a film with yourself, by yourself on your phone, just go out and do it. And then keep making them, keep improving and developing your style, don’t be scared to put yourself out there.”

“Also, there’s a company called Rife Magazine in Bristol that make some great content and have some fantastic opportunities for young film-makers. I’m currently doing some videos for them about the film-making process that should be uploaded later this week. Any readers who want advice for film-making, go to their website. But just go and do it.”

Alan will be screening in London, and may be screening again in Bristol in the coming weeks. All details of the events are available online.


Have you seen Alan? Let us know on @EpigramFilm.

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