By Eric Lutz
“My friends and I would always kind of half-joke about how in our class, more kids went to jail than went to college,” filmmaker John Rangel tells me over coffee on a sunny Friday morning in Logan Square.
We’re talking about Aurora, Illinois, his hometown and the setting of his brilliant new movie, “The Girls on Liberty Street,” which opens at the Chicago International Film Festival October 12.
“When I was in grade school, there were gangs and they would fight—they would fist-fight,” he says. “By the time I got to middle school, people started getting shot. And then by the time I was graduating high school, it was machine guns and pipe bombs.”
Growing up, Rangel wanted nothing more than to get out of town.
When finally he did—a full-ride to University of Illinois to study engineering psychology—he found himself in the weird position of missing the place he so desperately wanted away from.
“I had these complicated feelings of, ‘I want to get away from that. I don’t want to be a victim of that,’” Rangel says. “And then at the same time, if anybody would talk shit about Aurora, oh I would defend it like angrily and aggressively.”
“The Girls on Liberty Street,” Rangel’s love letter to the City of Lights, is a lot of things—a portrait of a teenager for whom war is her best option; a subtle but smart statement on race and class in America—but mostly, it’s a meditation on home and how complicated that concept is.
“I wanted to tell a story about somebody who had complicated feelings about their hometown, who wanted to get the hell out of there but at the same time just couldn’t let go of it,” Rangel says.
Brianna, the film’s main character, is leaving for the army in a week. In that time, she says goodbye to her family and friends, but also to home as she knows it—she, like all who watch this film, implicitly understand that even if the bones of our hometowns are still there, the blood that make them our homes bleed away with time.
A distance grows between Brianna and her friends, who are poised for another teenaged summer while Brianna prepares to go to war. Some of her family admires her for getting out of town and experiencing life in a way circumstance has prevented them from experiencing, while others worry about the obvious: What if she doesn’t make it back?
This isn’t a will she/won’t she story; from the first frame, it’s clear that she’s leaving. The film, then, is a pressure-cooker of dread that gets a notch more intense with each passing minute.
Rangel had wanted to do something about his hometown, but didn’t have a story until his wife suggested a girl getting ready to go off for war. From there, he developed an outline that his actors would improvise off of—a different method than his tightly scripted earlier work like “south loop.” He filled the cast with nonprofessional actors: Brianna Zepeda and her mother, Norma, and sister Selena, are at the core of the film, with Hector Saldana (a childhood friend of Rangel) playing the father and Ariel del Villar playing the brother. These characters feel deeply authentic, both because of strong performances—especially from Brianna Zepeda—but also because they seem to understand where Rangel’s coming from.
Rangel had grown up loving movies—he said he sometimes went to the movies three or four times a week with his father—but didn’t “catch the movie bug” until he saw Spike Lee’s classic examination of race and class, “Do the Right Thing.”
“In my experience growing up in Aurora, it was a third white, a third black and a third Mexican,” Rangel says. “So race was at the forefront of everything. But I’d never seen it on the screen treated honestly or with any kind of depth. When I saw ‘Do the Right Thing,’ I was like, ‘Holy shit, there’s somebody there who kind of understands where I come from a little bit.’”
“The Girls on Liberty Street” is rich with social awareness—“This isn’t happening to white kids in Winnetka,” Rangel says—but he buries them in the background of the personal journey of his character. It’s not about the issue, in other words, but about how characters act under circumstances out of their control.
“I wanted it to feel natural to my experience and my friends too and the people I knew,” Rangel says. “It’s really complicated, but I didn’t want it to look complicated. I wanted it to feel everyday and natural.”
“The Girls on Liberty Street” plays the Chicago International Film Festival on October 12, 14 and 15. chicagofilmfestival.com