The film opens with a young man lying in bed. The only light is the glow from his cellphone, which is by his side and ringing.
The call goes to voicemail. A company is trying to sell him a warranty on his car. As his day progresses, he receives half a dozen more phone messages, from his girlfriend pleading not to break up with her, to a professor checking in because he’s missed so many classes. In another call, he is asked to deliver the eulogy at his best friend Travis’s funeral. “We didn’t know he was taking antidepressants,” says the caller—Travis’s father.
The young man never speaks or answers his phone.
His girlfriend calls again, trying desperately to reach him. Someone else calls to invite him to a party. The film ends with the young man standing on a wall, facing a darkening sky, with the sound of water rushing below. His girlfriend calls one more time, to say she loves him. He pauses. Then he drops off the edge. A moment later, a loud splash.
This is Leave a Message, a short film by Justin Hollis, an Eckerd College sophomore from Hollywood, Florida. It is Justin’s first film. And it was chosen recently by a jury of industry professionals as the Best College Short Film at the 17th Annual Sunscreen Film Festival in St. Petersburg. The festival is presented by the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Film Commission and this year highlighted more than 50 independent films. Justin’s category included entries from notable film programs at Florida State University, Chapman University and Ringling College of Art and Design.
Leave a Message is an award-winning short film by sophomore Justin Hollis.
Eckerd College junior Kat Sokolich, a film studies student from Naples, Florida, and Eckerd alumna Diana Blecher ’21, too, were honored at the festival for having their films officially selected from hundreds of entries by the festival committee. The four-day event, which ended May 1 and attracted more than 10,000 people, also allowed Eckerd students to work as production assistants and to volunteer. “It also gives them a chance to network and get a sense of what independent filmmakers are producing,” explains Nick Corrao, the Donald R. Eastman III assistant professor of film studies at Eckerd.
Justin says Leave a Message was inspired by a conversation with his roommate. “We were trying to come up with an idea and we thought, What if we did a story told through voicemail? All these people come by to tell one story. It’s the idea of a tragedy that leads to depression and causes someone to separate himself from his friends and family. It’s about how depression can really have an impact on people without them even knowing.
“I’ve never been diagnosed with depression,” adds Justin, a film studies and animal studies student. “But I’ve seen my fair share of death within my family, and I’ve gone to more funerals lately than birthday parties.”
As with most films, there were glitches during the process. The actor Justin had chosen for the lead had to cancel at the last minute. “But it turned out better because I could put my own emotions into the character,” Justin says. “That’s kind of difficult because it’s hard for young men to express their feelings. I was sharing a piece of myself with this film, and that wasn’t easy, because you’re judged by everybody who watches it. But people saw it and offered encouragement. And by sharing myself, I got that burden off of me.”
As he sat in the theatre at the AMC Sundial 12 complex in downtown St. Petersburg and watched his film, he had to remind himself this was his work up on the screen. “It was heart-pounding,” he says.
“I was just in disbelief. [Surrounding] my film were all these other really good short films. And my film beat those? It was like I was some kind of imposter.”
After the films were shown and he had done a question-and-answer session with audience members, several people stopped Justin and praised his work. “One lady who had a friend who dealt with mental illness said it really impacted her,” Justin says. “It felt so wonderful to be promoting awareness of the subject.”
Justin says his biggest goal is to get a mentorship with actor/filmmakers Tyler Perry or Spike Lee. “So I can cultivate my ideas and be able to showcase my work with someone already in the industry,” he explains. “But my main goal is to tell a story people are too afraid to tell. To give a voice to those who don’t have a voice themselves.”
“He made this film last semester in my Intro to Filmmaking class,” adds Corrao. “Justin is a cinema lover who understands the visual language of the medium. There’s a maturity to this project that is notable. There’s a tremendous amount of weight in the film, but it’s not heavy-handed. He’s not telling you how to think, but instead he invites the audience to build empathy and understanding through observing the experience of the characters.
“I’m really excited to see what Justin does next.”