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Student film reflects on friendship, love and loss in story of owner and pet

Third-year English student Alex Araki has been writing the script for her short film, “The Best Summer Ever,” for a year. Araki said she hopes for audiences to resonate with the film, which is shown through a dog’s perspective. (Courtesy of Emily Wang)

By Tara Oldenburg

Jan. 26, 2020 11:49 p.m.

Man’s best friend is telling the story in Alex Araki’s short film.

Araki, a third-year English student, has been writing her film “The Best Summer Ever” for a little over a year. The film chronicles the story of two friends, Andy and Ellie, who enjoy a week of summer vacation without the knowledge that Andy, Ellie’s dog, will be put down in the coming days. Araki said such interactions between Andy and Ellie will showcase the bond between humans and animals beyond an owner-pet relationship.

“Pets are such great friends and companions throughout our lives, and they provide such joy and comfort,” Araki said. “The loss of a pet is something that so many people can resonate with and relate to, so I’m hoping to tap into that part of people’s experiences.”

Araki went through a similar experience to Ellie when her 15-year-old dog had to be put down last summer. Faced with the difficult task of processing her emotions, Araki said that she found an emotional catharsis in screenwriting. But she said the script for “The Best Summer Ever” lay dormant for several months until she was able to reconcile her emotions regarding her dog’s death.

[Related: Love spells trouble for queer characters in student film about love’s trials]

While Araki turned to writing to deal with her grief, she also wanted to take on a technical challenge by shooting the film from the perspective of a dog. She said her main challenge arose with ensuring the audience understood the depth of relationship between Andy and Ellie without the knowledge that Andy was a dog.

“We never really see them side by side,” Araki said. “It’s a lot of Ellie sitting next to Andy so you don’t see the height difference. That way we can kind of play into the illusion that Andy is just her friend rather than her dog.”

Ellie’s performance will be taken on by Jenna Luck, a fourth-year political science student, who Araki said will drive the audience’s perception of the relationship between Andy and Ellie. Luck said she feels a particular kinship with her character as she has had similar experiences in dealing with the death of a dog. Despite her grief, Luck said she enjoyed that the subject was more personal to her than her previous work.

“All of a sudden it’s revealed that (the narrator) is a dog and it makes it so much more powerful,” Luck said. “It’s pulling on your heartstrings because it’s that much more special to see that friendship and the pure loyalty of a dog to their human.”

[Related: Student film blends comedy and horror to make light of irrational fears]

But filming through the point of view of an animal has its challenges, as she had to perform directly into the camera instead of with a physical co-star. Luck was nervous about this aspect of filming, but she said she aims to mimic the interactions she would theoretically have with a dog.

“It’s a little bit like going to a film and getting sucked into the story, but times 10, where you’re suspending your disbelief,” Luck said. “You’re playing on your imagination and getting lost in it.”

The production team also faced the challenge of balancing the piece’s emotional and technical difficulty, Araki said. Fourth-year sociology student Gabby Morales, a producer for the film, fought the board of the Film and Photography Society at UCLA for the project to be made based on the pretense of such intricacies. Despite pushback because of its technical complexity, Morales said she wanted to produce the piece because of the authenticity of Araki’s experience with loss.

“Most people who have pets have to deal with the potential loss,” Morales said. “It’s a nice story to tell as an homage to them, to show people it’s OK to feel this way.”

Araki said she hopes audiences will understand the complex human-animal relationship because she filmed from the perspective of a dog. She plans to enter the film into the Campus Movie Fest at UCLA, in which the winner of the competition has the opportunity to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. While she hopes to be screened in Cannes, Araki said her ultimate desire is for audiences to resonate with the emotions involved with the loss of a loved one – human or animal.

“Even for people that haven’t lost an animal, I hope that the film really resonates with them,” Araki said. “It’s more than a pet, it’s more than your animal, it’s your best friend.”

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Tara Oldenburg
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