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First-time filmmaker gets green light to create coming-of-age feature

Two women sit smiling at each other on a brick fountain in early 20th century style clothing
Alyson O'Hara
In her directorial debut, Antoinette Lavalle explores themes of mental health, family drama and the female experience at the turn of the 20th century in Peck.

Antoinette Lavalle's directorial debut, Peck, premieres March 17 at the Varsity Cinema in Des Moines. The film explores mental health and the female experience in the early 20th century.

For first-time feature filmmaker Antoinette Lavalle, making a movie in her home state of Iowa was an eye-opening experience. While working on her debut coming-of-age drama Peck, she discovered a community of talent and support for female filmmakers right in her backyard.

“There’s a whole universe I didn't realize was here,” Lavalle recalled. “You do have to do a little bit of searching for it. But then once you do, you're like, wow! There are so many women doing exceptional photo, video, writing, screenwriting — any of those aspects of making a film — here in Iowa.”

Finding a strong group of women to work with was vital for Lavalle’s vision of Peck, which follows a young woman named Sophia, who deals with anxiety, family drama and the female experience of the early 1900s. Sophia feels trapped by societal expectations, but begins to transform when a group of newcomers arrive in town.

Peck is definitely a coming-of-age story. The scenes are going to be focusing on mental health, the complexity of all female relationships, romantic or platonic, and how we as women communicate, especially when we’re growing up,” Lavalle said.

As a native Iowan, Lavalle also wanted to showcase the scenery of her home state.

“I wanted to do a period piece, definitely inspired by Jane Austen and growing up watching all these beautiful British landscapes. We have some beautiful land here in Iowa,” she said. “I know there's some beautiful, pastoral, expansive views. I wanted to also feature the natural world and the natural landscape that is the Midwest.”

Peck was filmed with an all-Iowa cast and crew predominantly made up of female and non-binary artists, according to Lavalle. She said the experience of making a feature film was beneficial for everyone involved, both professionally and personally.

“It was an amazing opportunity to make this film for young professionals here locally in Iowa that maybe didn't have a film department in their school or didn't feel completely comfortable to be on a film set yet,” Lavalle said. “It just provided so many different doorways for us to walk through.”

Getting the green light to create

The project received funding from the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) Greenlight Grant, which is designed to support filmmakers in Iowa.

Liz Gilman, the film commissioner at the IEDA, said the grant connects fellow filmmakers in the state by encouraging partnerships between Iowans in the industry.

“One of the requirements of the grant is collaboration,” Gilman said. “You'll have to spend all the funds here in Iowa, so that helps people get to network and know other filmmakers, which makes people better, and it builds the industry from the ground up.”

According to Gilman, it was clear from the beginning that Lavalle’s Peck was a worthy recipient of the 2022 Greenlight Grant.

“She came with this period piece. It stood out, and then it was just really interesting. She was working with other really capable filmmakers that were younger females, and I could just feel the vision in their application,” Gilman recalled. “It was amazing, the vision that they had.”

Two women walk in a field of long grass as the sun sets behind them.
Emma Colman
Antoinette Lavalle was inspired by the British landscapes featured in Jane Austen adaptions like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. She showcased her home state's pastoral scenery while filming Peck on location in Marshalltown.

From page to screen

The idea for Peck initially came to Lavalle while she was studying film production at The New School in New York in 2018. It started out as a screenplay for a short film about mental health. But over the course of the pandemic, it evolved into a feature-length script, which she co-wrote with Alyson O’Hara.

“I just had this inkling to go back to the script and reimagine it as something bigger and as something completely different — but still following that theme of dealing with a friendship, dealing with mental health, keeping it all together,” Lavalle recalled. “And of course, we had a lot of time to think during the pandemic, so I just took pencil and paper and just started writing out scripts. I had no idea where it was going to go, but I knew those were kind of the things I wanted to follow within the backdrop of a period piece set in Iowa.”

In addition to co-writing and directing Peck, Lavalle also stars as the character Sophia. According to Lavalle, she drew inspiration from the multifaceted writer, director, producer and actress, Sofia Coppola.

“The film Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola is a personal favorite, and I was inspired in multiple ways by that one specifically. For instance, throughout both films, the lead women are in their gilded cages, metaphorically built by the expectations of others and society,” Lavalle said. “Additionally, I named the main character Sophia after Sofia Coppola and Sophia Loren, as a tribute to iconic Italian women in filmmaking and to part of my own heritage.”

As the premiere of Peck approaches, Lavalle looks back at her time on set as both a cathartic experience and a learning opportunity.

“I really tried to have a lot of ease with the project — not grasping it and holding on to control too tightly,” she said. “There are just so many factors in a day that could change what you're doing.”

Two women stand in a garden with their backs to the camera on a movie set.
Alyson O'Hara
Antoinette Lavalle led an all-Iowa cast and crew in her directorial debut Peck, which she filmed in state with support from the 2022 Greenlight Grant.

Setting the scene for collaboration

Lavalle knew early on that she wanted to create a constructive and inclusive set for all members of the cast and crew, especially since many were working on a film set for the first time.

“You’re managing a lot, so if you can just keep a perspective that is open and willing to go with the flow and also create an environment that is very supportive, people feel like they can express themselves, speak up and ask questions,” Lavalle said. “It had to be a very safe space, not only because I felt like this was very vulnerable for me to be a director, actor and writer in it, but also for everyone else that is new and that wanted to learn on set.”

According to Gilman, who visited the set during filming, Lavalle accomplished her goal in ways that impressed the industry veteran.

“I’ve been in the industry for probably 35 years. I had never gone to a set that had all capable female filmmakers in charge, and it was so cool to watch,” Gilman recalled. “When I started out, I was usually the only woman on set. And to see it flip — to see that there was maybe one or two guys on set, and the women were in charge — it was just a really respectful, intellectual set.”

With the finished film ready for audiences, Lavalle is looking ahead to the upcoming festival season. She's planning to showcase the film at local and national film festivals before it's made available for streaming.

The film is set to premiere at the Varsity Cinema in Des Moines on Sunday, March 17, at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a Q&A with Lavalle and other members of the cast and crew.

Nicole Baxter is a Sponsorship Coordinator and covers film as a contributing writer for Iowa Public Radio.