Some stories contain such spirit and joy for life that they make us wish their characters were real; others encompass suffering and pain that we would not wish on anyone.
Holden On, written and directed by Tamlin Hall, contains both, and what makes it even more special and saddening is that it is based on a true story. The film focuses on a teenager, Holden Layfield (Matt Fahey), who has a mental illness and ultimately takes his own life at the age of 19.
Holden On premiered this past weekend at the Atlanta Film Festival, and the journey to its debut has spanned the past decade. For both Hall and Fahey, the project was first and foremost about honoring Layfield and his family. Hall was friends with Layfield in high school, and years after Layfield’s 1995 death, Hall felt Layfield’s story needed to be told. He contacted Layfield’s parents, who gave their blessing for the film.
Layfield’s parents’ encouragement was echoed by residents of LaGrange, Ga., Holden’s hometown, during filming. Whether they brought home-cooked food to set, donated old clothes to give the film its 1990s feel or served as extras, LaGrange residents came together to help tell Layfield’s story in any way they could. Hall and Fahey described the set as a “family”; Holden On’s production was very much a grassroots effort in which the community played a vital role.
In the film, the Layfield family is characterized as close-knit and fun-loving. The intimate shots of the family include discussions at dinner and games of Scrabble and charades. In school, Layfield is well-liked and compassionate, and everyone sees a bright future for him in college football. Unfortunately, Layfield’s foundation of love and stability is fractured by the onset of schizophrenia, which plague him with harrowing hallucinations.
In the film, two versions of Layfield emerge — the star football player who is close with family and friends, and the Holden who desperately attempts to self-medicate his mental illness through drug abuse. Fahey’s performance captures both sides of Layfield, and he cites Hall’s talent as an “actor’s director” for giving him confidence to take on the role. Hall described Fahey’s work ethic and passion for the project as the vital factors in his casting.
While Holden On brings mental health to the big screen, another representative will bring attention to this topic on the Miss Georgia stage in June. At the Holden On premiere, Courtney Hinesley, Miss Magnolia 2017, bravely opened up for the first time about her own struggle with depression, and stressed the importance of being open about one’s internal conflicts. Hinesley said she partnered with the film because she “saw that it was more than just a story; it was a movement.”
Layfield’s spirit also lives on through the I Am Holden On Art Initiative. The movement was inspired by pieces of artwork Layfield’s sister created for him after his diagnosis. In the film, Layfield intensely struggles to self-medicate and keep his mental illness a secret in fear of stigma. The “I Am Holden On Art Initiative” gives high school students a creative and positive outlet to discuss mental illness, which has produced inspiring results. “Art can communicate things that words can’t,” Hall said of the project during our interview, which has already sparked essential conversations about mental illness in schools nationwide.
Holden On does not just tell Layfield’s tragic story — it communicates to the viewer the uplifting kindness he had for others. At the premiere, Hall called for everyone in the audience to embrace someone next to them, and this gesture not only speaks for Hall’s warmth but also the positive energy surrounding the film. The film’s message and Layfield’s life philosophy are ones of acceptance and compassion for everyone. Holden Layfield’s life may have ended, but his story and humanity are celebrated through the art and the people he inspired.