In a Zoom interview with The Michigan Daily, Roger Rapoport — a Michigan alum, author, screenwriter, movie producer and journalist — spoke on the recent project he co-wrote, “Coming Up For Air.” Once an Editor in Chief at The Daily, Rapoport has devoted his entire career to creating works of honesty and substance. Coming off a seventh-best feature win at the Vero Beach Film Festival, Rapoport’s pride and passion for the film were palpable.
“Coming Up For Air” is a film that explores the demands of caregiving, the perils of perfectionism and the consequences of denial. Stan (Chase Yi, “Night Teeth”) is an Olympic-hopeful high diver and equally high achiever. His grueling lifestyle becomes increasingly unsustainable. His mother, Anna (Deborah Staples, “Pilot Error”), struggles to rescue him when he spirals rapidly into a mental health crisis.
This isn’t like any mental health picture we’ve seen before. Rather than focusing solely on Stan, “Coming Up For Air” chooses to tell the greater part of the story through Anna’s eyes. Rapoport said this decision was a critical one, as there are “endless movies about the journey of (a mentally ill person) … The caregiver’s side of it is minimized.”
During our conversation, Rapoport described the importance of taking the “local angle” in “Coming Up For Air.” The joy of this film lies in how it can relate to both individuals and families who see it, informing viewers about access to mental health services, thus impacting more meaningful change. Rapoport himself has a personal connection to the themes in this film and emphasized that “every family has a mental health story.” Shortly after wrapping, a mental health crisis within Rapoport’s own family required swift action on his part, and the relevance of his film’s subject matter came further into focus.
On Sept. 30 at The Michigan Theater, I found myself at a showing for “Coming Up For Air” with the stars of the film present. It was my first time in the glorious theater and my first time in a while seeing a truly independent film. Compared to the overproduced, often far-fetched pictures that are commonplace on the silver screen, the storytelling of “Coming Up For Air” benefits from the absence of creative limitations that come with corporate production. The film is able to be raw and true to life rather than escapist. Rapoport said that “seeing the movie on the big screen at The Michigan Theater is about as good as you can get.” I couldn’t agree more.
“Coming Up For Air” is superbly filmed. Bruce Schermer, who Rapoport referred to as a “jack of all trades cinematographer,” expresses a mother’s desperation and her son’s distress with impressive execution and subtle grace. It would be folly to neglect celebrating the editing in the diving sequences — seamless, utterly believable and key in conveying Stan’s reality — a testament to this film’s compelling scene constructions. In one scene, Schermer cleverly draws a parallel between Stan and Anna’s lives. As a solemn Anna soaks in a bathtub, Stan prepares to dive. Anna submerges herself in the water as Stan leaps off a diving board and slams into the cold water meters below him. In another, the film cuts from a frame of Anna’s head as she retires for the night to a shot of laundry spinning in a washer. Here, Schermer communicates the endless gear-turning of Anna’s worried mind. The camera never strays far from Anna — Robert Cicchini (the director of the film) encourages the audience to connect and identify with her. Empathy pulsed through the seats of The Michigan Theater, as the film delivered what only indie films ever seem to: the quiet beauty of familiarity and realism.
Not only does “Coming Up For Air” show the untold story of the caregiver, but the film also breaks precedent by centering around a high diver. When asked about the significance of their subject choice, Rapoport noted that “Everything in platform diving — diving from a platform — happens in three seconds.” In choosing “the ultimate do or die” sport in which “there is no room for error,” “Coming Up For Air” is able to capture the nauseating weight Stan is relentlessly smothered by. It becomes almost painful to hear the sound of Stan’s body slapping the water over and over again, as the discomfort and confinement of his sport settles into the audience.
The performances by both lead actors, whom I also got to meet on Sept. 30, were sensitive and powerfully convincing. Yi and Staples reminisced light-heartedly on their time shooting the film, praising each other endlessly and exchanging fun-spirited banter. Rapoport praised the costars on their intimate understanding of Stan and Anna, comparing the perfectionism and competitive nature of acting to a sport like high diving. Rapoport added that their drastically different approaches to this film were “a tremendous asset” in emulating a mother-son relationship, in which “they love each other, but they don’t see life the same way.” In one of the best scenes, Anna holds a resigned Stan as he finally surrenders to his own pain and allows his mother to carry some of the burden with him.
My conversation with Rapoport set my expectations for “Coming Up For Air” high, and the film exceeded them. I left the theater with the kind of heaviness that only comes after viewing something profound, a newfound sense of appreciation for the sacrifices made by our loved ones and the fierce, fierce urge to hug my mother.
Daily Arts Contributor Maya Ruder can be reached at email@example.com.