What happens when you randomly pick a film to watch at the Ashland Independent Film Festival?

What happens when you randomly pick a film to watch at the Ashland Independent Film Festival?

Odds are, you'll like it.

The 10th annual film festival, which kicked off on Thursday, offers 84 films this year that were culled from more than 800 entries.

I had a window of time on Thursday afternoon to see a film, and with several other screenings sold out for that day, I was left with the choice of "Benavides Born." Director Amy Wendel's feature film, done entirely with hand-held cameras, has the gritty feel of a documentary, but with the carefully interwoven plot line of fiction.

The opening instantly puts audience members into an unusual world — high school girl power lifters straining, veins bulging, to lift hundreds of pounds. The main character, Luz Garcia, is desperate to make it to the state power-lifting competition, win first place in her weight class, and nab a sports scholarship to attend the University of Texas at Austin. Her family members are unwilling to go further in debt by co-signing school loans for her, so she needs to make it on her own.

In the beginning, that means winding Saran Wrap around her belly, running obsessively and spitting her saliva into an empty water bottle to keep within her 114-pound power-lifting weight class.

But with another fierce competitor in her class, Luz begins to consider steroids as a way to get the coveted state title.

She makes a series of missteps, and begins a rapid downward spiral.

Wendel, who co-wrote the screenplay in addition to directing "Benavides Born," was on hand after the film to answer questions from audience members.

She spent four years as a teacher, getting a firsthand reminder of how tenuous kids' lives and futures can be.

"The spiral downward happened so quickly because when you're on the margin, there's so little room for error," Wendel said. "I want to tell young people, 'Try another way. Don't give up.' "

She said when people hear that the film is about power lifting, they expect to see a different kind of movie.

"People want it to be the 'Rocky' of power lifting," Wendel said.

It would be easy as a screenwriter to have Luz ruin her life, then leave her with nothing.

But Wendel, co-writing with husband Daniel Meisel, finds a way for Luz to have hope for her future. It won't be an easy path for Luz to fulfill her dream of going to college, but it is a way.

It turned out that I wasn't the only one attending "Benavides Born" by chance.

Ashland resident Victor Buccina said he and his wife got a gift of tickets to the film and decided to go for that reason.

"I thought it was excellent," he said.

June Buccina, a retired teacher, said the film perfectly captured how Luz, like many teens, sometimes has a bad attitude that makes it hard for audience members to like her consistently, yet they still root for her.

"I thought they nailed it," she said.

So, whether you make careful, well-researched picks for the films you watch at this year's festival, or simply throw a dart, you're likely to walk away touched by your choice.

For more information, visit www.ashlandfilm.org.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.