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Bennett Lasseter follows in his father's footsteps

For one full year, director Bennett Lasseter has been touring the world, visiting film festivals from Hollywood to Cannes in support of his award-winning short family drama “Stealth” – as it has racked up a pile of rave reviews and audience accolades.

To Lasseter, a Burbank resident, it has been quite a ride. But through it all, there has been one specific town – and one particular movie theater – that the young filmmaker was looking forward to screening his film at more than any other.

“Because I grew up here, in Sonoma,” said Lasseter, midway through the recent Sonoma International Film Festival, where “Stealth” screened twice, “I really wanted to bring this film back home for its last official festival screening. And I think my proudest moment all year long was seeing that screen credit – ‘Directed by Bennett Lasseter' – up there on the big screen at the Sebastiani Theatre. That was pretty amazing.”

It was, in fact, almost inevitable.

After all, Lasseter spent his youth watching movies at the Sebastiani, including those films directed and produced by his father, John Lasseter – “Toy Story,” “A Bug's Life,” “Cars.”

“As a kid, I always went to the Witchie Poo shows at the Sebastiani,” laughs Lasseter. “As a teenager, I went to film festivals there. I kind of grew up in that theater, watching those credits at the end of movies, seeing my dad's name up on the screen. So when I finally got to see my own name up there on that same screen, it really was kind of thrilling.

“It was like, ‘Wow. Look! I've done it! I've arrived! My movie's at the Sebastiani!'?”

A graduate of Sonoma Academy, Bennett Lasseter attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he studied filmmaking with an emphasis on post-production.

“For most of my time at LMU, I really was not interested in directing,” Lasseter said. “I was studying editing and editing software. But while I was directing a film as my senior thesis, I suddenly went, ‘You know what? I love this. Being on a film is what drives me. This is a stress I can thrive on.'?”

Upon graduating in 2011, Lasseter applied to the American Film Institute, where he was accepted into the esteemed organization's two-year directing program. “Stealth,” which Lasseter developed and directed as one of two thesis films at AFI, is an emotionally complex story about a recently transitioned 11-year-old transgender girl, her relationship with her mother, and what happens when she decides to come out to some new friends during a slumber party. The 22-minute short film was written by fellow AFI student Melissa Hoppe, who suggested the idea to Lasseter.

“There are so many ways to explore this kind of a story,” said Lasseter. “You could tell it from the perspective of a mother, not having any instructions about how to move forward in a way that's best for her child, or from the perspective of her daughter, just wanting to be herself and not be restricted by how others see her.”

The completed film was submitted to a number of major film festivals, and over the last year has received several awards, including a pair of College Emmy Awards, and a Student Academy Award. In addition to screening in the American Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival, in France, “Stealth” went on to take the prize for Best Student Film at the Cleveland International Film Festival, won for Most Inspirational Film at the Heart of Gold International Short Film Festival in Australia, and won the Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Short.

“We even won an award in Mumbai, which was really incredible,” said Lasseter. That was at the KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, where transgender lead actress Kristina Hernandez was honored for Best Performance in a Lead Role. “The scariest moment, for me, was when we showed it to an all-kid audience in Toronto,” he said of its screening at the Toronto Kids International Film Festival. “We didn't know what to expect. After the film, the kids' questions were more like, ‘Why is that girl so mean to Sammy?' as opposed to, ‘I don't understand Sammy. Why is she a girl instead of a boy?' It was really fantastic to see the film through their eyes.”

Lasseter says that, despite the film's obvious message of tolerance and acceptance, what appealed to him most about the project was the notion of a mother and daughter working together under extraordinary circumstances.

“I come from a large family,” he said. “I'm one of five boys. The stories that always compel me are the ones that have a family core, where the values, the morals, the family drama or comedy that happens, it all comes from the relationship between parent and child, or between the siblings.”

Now that “Stealth” has completed its touring circuit, Lasseter is busy writing screenplays, and developing projects in Los Angeles.

“Everything from television pilots to car commercials,” he said with a laugh. Though no plans to further distribute “Stealth” have been announced by AFI, which owns the film, Lasseter believes it will likely be made available in the future, possibly online or as part of an AFI Thesis collection. He hopes so, as the film has deep resonance for Lasseter, who identifies, in a way, with the character of Sammy.

“I know what it's like to have parents that will support me to the ends of the Earth,” he said. “It's been immensely enabling and wonderful to have the backing of parents who believe in the creative arts as a profession. They never said, ‘You should be a doctor. You should be a lawyer.' They always said, ‘You're an artist. Just be yourself.'”

Contact David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

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