Jenny Waldo’s debut feature as writer-director, Acid Test, is out now on digital. The coming-of-age feature adapts her festival-favorite short film of the same name and is based on her own tumble through self-discovery as a 1990’s Riot Grrrl! A graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where she won a directing scholarship, Jenny worked on documentaries while also pursuing her passion for scripted filmmaking. Her producing credits include the indie feature The Preacher’s Daughter, which sold to Lifetime, and the feature documentary The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing. An advocate for upcoming filmmakers, Jenny was Program Coordinator at the non-profit Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP) and now teaches filmmaking at Houston Community College. Learn more at jennywaldo.com.
Growing up, my parents exposed me to a wide range of movies. My father, who’s from Florida, loved horror movies, sci-fi blockbusters and political thrillers. My mother, who’s from the formerly Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, loved the movies that inspired her before she left – the Italian, French and Czech New Wave Films. I loved everything and found an education that only movies could provide. I learned how people lived and loved and fought and died. I got to experience someone else’s life for a couple of hours, put myself in their place, try on their feelings. I would watch and rewatch and rewatch again movies that moved me. They felt so real. Art imitating life.
As a teenager, that compulsion to watch and rewatch grew, to feel something outside of all the tumultuous feelings I had inside, to see a world reflecting the one I lived in or to take me outside of it. Everything felt high stakes, life or death. Movies became a gateway for exploring my own identity. Those first discoveries stayed with me as I gained more life experience, and to this day, the coming-of-age genre still affects me, even though I’m far from that stage of life. It’s no surprise that my first feature film as a writer-director, Acid Test, is a coming-of-age film.
For me, the most important task of being a filmmaker is to create characters, stories and moments on screen that feel real to an audience, so I mined from my own life to create Acid Test. The project began in 2015 as a short film inspired by my love of Riot Grrrl music, my troubles with my parents and the time I dropped acid at a concert and came home – told my parents I was tripping – after which they proceeded to yell at me while I was still tripping. The feature film adaptation is now available on digital platforms.
Every moment in Acid Test is based on something true; some details have been left out, others embellished, others changed. It was important to me that I could defend the authenticity behind the story, while also recognizing that the movie is a fictional creation built by 50 cast and crew members, locations decorated with things I saved from the 1990s or bought or borrowed, shot out of sequence and assembled and refined on a computer, made possible by the hundreds of people who contributed in ways large and small.
This seven-year odyssey was not only an incredible learning experience as a filmmaker, but a surprising one as a human. Writing the feature version of Acid Test nearly broke me, as I recalled traumatic experiences and analyzed how and where they best functioned in a narrative arc. I had difficulty talking to my parents because I was mentally reliving some of our worst experiences together, despite the stabilization of our relationship since my teenage years. Once I moved into production, and the film became a collaboration with my cast and crew, I was able to get more emotional distance, only for a new emotional twist: I am now the parent of teenagers dealing with many of the same issues I did at their age, and that are explored in my film. I’m now on the other side – the parents’ side – as my children formulate and discover their own identities as they set out on their own into the world.
My husband and I have a blended family – I have two children, he has two, and they are all one year apart. My stepson graduated high school last year and is trying to figure out life. My son is a senior and stressing about colleges – he’s even looking at some of the same colleges I applied to. My stepdaughter is a junior with an incredible creative mind, a competitive spirit, and a lot of anger that I identify with. My youngest is the most like looking in a mirror – they’ve chopped off all their hair and are questioning their gender and sexuality, and struggling with mental illness. Especially with a blended family, there’s an interesting “nature versus nurture” debate constantly unfolding and I find myself managing these riotous feelings in my children. My kids look at Acid Test and say, “Well, at least I’m not doing drugs like you did!” but everything they’re doing is their own version of rebellion, experimentation, questioning and a bit of self-destruction. Even with therapy and trying to understand that my parents were doing the “best” they could at the time with the resources they had available, even if that best was sub-par, watching my kids struggle – hearing them say phrases I thought and felt and remember from when I was their age – has finally made me realize that much of my traumatic youth was undiagnosed mental illness and I’m watching genetics at play. It’s allowed me a little more forgiveness toward my parents than I had previously been able to accomplish.
Sharing my movie about my tumultuous teen years with my own teenage children has been a profound experience. Most children can’t participate in their parents’ professional lives the way my children were able to as extras in the film, with a crew invading their house, and attending the festival premiere. Their pride is a strange thing to feel, when it is usually my job to be proud and supportive of them. They know more about me, not because of a story I’ve told them, but because they can experience their own version of it. I think, I hope, it allows them to be more open with me, but I also wonder if my film will influence them in some way, the way that movies impacted me so strongly at their age. I wonder what that influence will be. It’s a heightened version of the question all parents ask about how much they’ve affected, for better or worse, their children’s lives, and how much was hard-wired.
The playwright Oscar Wilde declared in an 1889 essay “The Decay of Lying” that “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” the idea being that humans will inform their choices, conceptualize their experiences, narrativize their lives based on the art they’ve been exposed to. I certainly was informed by the movies I watched – how many of my life experiences have been shaped by a narrative I absorbed? One of the pivotal moments in Acid Test comes when the main character chops all her hair off – just like I did, just like my youngest did, and just like my own mother did. Maybe this is going to be a thing in every generation of my family. I’ve now immortalized this personal moment in a public and shared experience. Is someone going to see my film and be inspired to cut their own hair? To rebel against the patriarchy? To explore their heritage and find their voice? To discover Riot Grrrl or whatever its modern incarnation is? Will life imitate the art I’ve created?
The ending for Acid Test is the only moment that is mostly fiction, and I scripted it from a very real and painful wish for how things could have gone when I was a teenager. I wrote the ending for me, before my kids entered their teen years, as a kind of wish fulfillment. I think many people parent in ways they wish they had been parented, but I’ve been surprised to discover how personally healing it is, which makes me wonder how much the wish fulfillment in my script, and this whole experience with Acid Test, influenced my own personal growth.
I feel like I’m standing in the middle of a mirror maze, with my reflections bouncing around to infinity. I lived through the teenage experience, inspired and influenced by movies, and I’ve now created a movie about those tumultuous years at the same time my own children are facing these same choices and struggles. I didn’t set out with that intention, I set out to represent the type of girl I was, the type I don’t see too often on screen, and to hopefully represent those who identify with that girl. When people come up to me after screenings and tell me they saw themselves and that I captured a truth they recognize, I know I’ve succeeded as a filmmaker. The movie will go on to move and influence people I will never meet, and I will continue on my own personal journey, gaining new life experiences and parenting my children as they move through the next phases of their own lives.
Whether art imitates life, life imitates art, or something in between the mirror reflections, ultimately art is something we create for others and leave behind when we pass, just like our children. As I plan to make another one (a movie, not a child!), I look forward to exploring once again.