Filmmaker, West Oak Lane native gets standing ovation at Philadelphia premiere

Tommy Oliver’s “1982,” a film “inspired by true events” and set and shot in the West Oak Lane house where the filmmaker grew up, debuted in the city of its inspiration on Saturday.

Eagerly waiting for the lights to dim at the Philadelphia Film Festival, many audience members expressed a personal relationship to the film, its subject matter or its crew. “Tommy” was the name on everyone’s lips.


Telling the semi-autobiographical story of a family dealing with the fallout of a mother’s crack addiction, the film focuses in tightly around the three main characters and their relationships. Tim Brown, played by actor Hill Harper, struggles to save face and care for his tomboyish daughter named Maya, played by the precocious Troi Zee, as his recovering addict wife Shenae (Sharon Leal) relapses in the face of an irresistible new drug called crack.

Over the course of the 90-minute feature film, the film revisited parts of the neighborhood in the early 1980s. Scenes of extreme pathos brought audience members to audible tears, although the film’s indirect treatment of tragedy, silencing its most dramatic moments or playing slow classical scores over the scenes, also left space for some uncomfortable laughter.

True Emotions and Artistic Liberties

While the story is rooted in the emotional landscape of Oliver’s own childhood, the writer/director pointed out several areas where he took artistic liberties with this very personal material to better tell a story.

Changing the film’s setting from the late 1980s to the eponymous 1982, the outset of widespread crack cocaine availability and use in Philadelphia, Oliver depicts a critical moment in urban history, allowing the audience to discover crack cocaine’s existence through Tim Brown’s character as he tries to piece together his wife’s activities.

Oliver also chose to cast a girl as “Maya,” although the script initially called for the child to be “Damian,” a young boy. Inspired by the “Hunger Games” character Rue, Oliver decided that a girl character would be “more emotional, more dramatic” than a boy.

Finally, the father figure played by Hill Harper is fictive, a composite of his own personality and who he wished had been present, said Oliver.

Local Talent, Global Recognition

“Philly is a really big character. It’s a Philly story,” said the first-time director. “One of the most important things for the film is to feel real, for it to feel authentic that way.”

He also shared that, as a low-budget feature film, it actually cost the film more money to shoot on-location, in the house where Oliver’s grandmother has lived for 45 years, as opposed to a competing location in Canada.

“I wanted to put money back into Philly, back into West Oak Lane,” said Oliver, whose choice of shooting location hinged on patronizing local businesses and using local talent as well as authenticity. He continued, “If I had the choice — and I did — why would I go anywhere else?”

Oliver is hoping for national release and distribution in 2014. In the meantime, critical acclaim keeps rolling in for this son of Philadelphia. The film won the top spot in Paris’ “US in Progress” in June, after winning an $85,000 post-production grant from the San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation.

The film had its feature debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in August.

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