What the world needs now is some feel-good vibes. Luckily, former Wizards of Waverly Place star David Henrie has been working on just that kind of project for the past two years.
The former tween star-turned-first-time-director is gearing up for Friday’s (Aug. 28) premiere of his long-in-the-works debut feature, This is the Year, a coming of age drama that pays homage to such John Hughes 1980s teen love angst touchstones as Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful.
“I was a huge fan of those classic coming-of-age films in the 1980s that made me feel good and it felt like people need to feel good now with everything going on in the world,” Henrie, 31, tells Billboard about the film, which follows a nerdy high school senior and his best friends as they hit the road to go see Lovelytheband at a festival as part of his last-ditch effort to win over the cute girl of his dreams.
“The script deals with timely modern themes, especially expectation versus reality… we expect a lot based on what is put in front of us on social media, especially when it comes to love,” he says. The film, which stars Henrie’s brother, Lornezo, as lovestruck senior Josh, pining for the unattainable Zoey, is executive produced by the director’s former Wizards castmate, Selena Gomez.
“It was super organic,” he says of the reunion with the singer/actress, whose friendship has always been “first and foremost” in their relationship. “Work has never even been in our periphery. We’re genuinely very close, if not best friends. We’ve never talked about work and in our friendly way I invited her to see the movie one day and I was blown away by her response.”
That led to Gomez signing on to executive produce the film, which also stars Gregg Sulkin, Jeff Garlin, Vanessa Marano, Jake Short and Alyssa Jirrels. It will get a virtual premiere on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET — tickets can be purchased here — during a one-of-a-kind event that will also feature appearances from TikTok personalities Charli and Dixie D’Amelio and a performance from Lovelytheband.
Billboard spoke to Henrie about the making of the film and the special magic Gomez brought to his dream project.
Why did you want this to be your directorial debut?
I just really wanted to see the main character tackle the theme I’d been wanting to do for a long time… my generation and Gen Z needs it, something that I haven’t seen a lot in teen movies these days. I finally found great partners and a terrific female writer I collaborated with, Sienna Aqualini, who really helped show an authentic female friendship in a non-competitive way.
We flipped the “hot girl” trope from ’80s movies because a lot of those characters didn’t really get arcs, so we wanted to show that that girl is so much more than meets the eye and has so much more to offer than one thing. Sienna Aquilini really did a great job making those female voices powerful and fresh.
How did you end up teaming with Selena for it? What inspired you to ask her to jump on as a producer?
She teared up at the end [when I screened it for her] and she said it was so sweet. She said, “I feel like a lot of movies out there now are not giving kids a positive message and a good time.” It was an organic conversation where I said, “Do you want to executive produce it?” And she was like, “I would love that! Let’s do it! Let’s join forces.”
As I said, she’s a good friend of mine, so she hears all my conversations and early on in the casting she was acting as an executive producer already from day one, completely unofficially giving me advice on things. “Check out this person, check out that person, you should try to get her…”
What did she bring to the project as an executive producer and friend? Did she have helpful creative input?
Absolutely! She totally had some great casting advice for me and helped me with some of the actors and she had great input on some of the music for the film. And in building this platform that our partners at BOLD Entertainment helped build with this whole concept of a live digital film premiere event, she had a lot of great input there because she knows her fans really well and had ideas about creative design and overall building of the platform itself.
I have to say, BOLD Entertainment really did help create a cool, new model that is essentially creating a premiere atmosphere for fans to come on and have a good time with me and Selena and get a great performance from Lovelytheband.
During these locked-down times, as a bored teenager it seems like a cool opportunity to get to attend a movie premiere, which during normal times is typically out of reach for the average high schooler.
Exactly right, that’s the goal. At every film premiere you get the Q&A after with the actors, and some event at the afterparty, and we’re hopefully giving that to people. I think quarantine kids needs something fun to do now and I just hope that this will be that and make them smile.
Plus you got to cast your brother Lorenzo in a starring role.
Yes, that was awesome. It was great because for an independent film it had this ambitious schedule and shot selection and they say when you make your first low-budget movie you do whatever you can to make it with [a] handheld [camera], all in one location, so there is minimal setup. I broke every rule, I didn’t use any handheld, I had all kind of different locations and I needed an actor who could pull off the performance quickly and who I had a good rapport with. We did not have time to do 10 takes and thankfully he was able to slay the enemy of every indie film, which is time.
What’s it like to have your first big project come out amid COVID? What did you have to switch up?
This whole angle of doing the live [premiere] event was birthed out of necessity due to COVID and we had a theatrical window we had to hit. I’m very grateful that my partners at BOLD Entertainment are visionaries and they were not going to take a loss and let the movie sit. They said, “We’re going to do something with this, we’re going to innovate and create.” They knew what the world needs now is a feel-good movie and they knew we had a feel-good movie.
It’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Exciting because we’re on to something at this time in life, but never-wracking because there’s no precedent for it. So far the response has been awesome, people seem super jacked about it.
Check out the trailer and premier tease below.