By Noma Faingold
When filmmaker Brian Benson first presented his drag alter-ego, Cousin Wonderlette, live in 2006, he didn’t go glam. He did not go catty. Instead, the Sunset District resident created a clumsy, child-like, cartoonish character.
To be blunt, Wonderlette is homely. She has stained, wide-gap teeth and wears too-tight baby-doll dresses. But she’s endearing in every stage show and in the 10 short films Benson has written and directed featuring Wonderlette, including his latest, “Eat the Rainbow.”
The 19-minute short film will be screened twice, April 13 and 21, during the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23. In the Wonderlette movies, the character usually gets bullied, often by her cruel mother. But Benson, 55, wanted “Eat the Rainbow” to have a more resonant message than his usual over-the-top romps.
“I started evolving the character and my style. The last one, ‘My Life Is a Dream,’ was three years ago,” Benson said. “This is the first one during the Trump administration.”
“Eat the Rainbow” is a satirical musical and a hopeful love story. It is also a fable about bigotry and what mob mentality looks like, even within a presumably safe cul-de-sac. The villain in the movie is a racist real estate agent, played by April Kidwell, who wears an all-white suit. She tries to keep a sweet young man, whose skin is blue, Bayani, (played by H.P. Mendoza) from buying a home on that block.
“There are bullies in all my movies but they get away with it in all the other movies. I wanted to make a movie where there are consequences for the bully,” said Benson. “There’s more kindness and love in this movie. It’s a very simplified, absurd version, inspired by our current situation. I wanted to present a bizarre world that reflected the absurdity of what’s happening in the real world. I’m addressing a lot of stuff – race, gender, sexuality, religion and blind following. I didn’t want to perpetuate the current ugliness. I wanted a happy ending.”
Benson has more than 30 film credits, most as assistant director or producer. He was a producer on “Sorry to Bother You,” “Howl,” “All About Evil” and the 2017 documentary “Dolores,” about the farm workers activist and feminist Dolores Huerta. The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Inauguration Day, 2017. Benson formed such a close bond with the now-88-year-old activist that she agreed to be in “Eat the Rainbow,” in her first acting role.
“She took it very seriously,” Benson said. “She knew her lines and even made me question and then change something in the script. It was an honor to have her in my movie. She is really busy and says no to most things.”
Benson grew up in the small Southern California town of Idyllwild in the San Jacinto Mountains. He began making crazy little films when he was eight, after his father gave him a Super 8 camera.
He enrolled at UCLA film school but moved to San Francisco in 1988 and finished his degree at San Francisco State University, where he now teaches a class in film producing and financing. Quickly gaining illustrious connections in the local film community was a relief, so he wouldn’t have to move back to Los Angeles to be successful.
“I got lucky,” Benson said.
Even though he got a lot of cost-saving help to make “Eat the Rainbow,” Benson spent about $35,000 of his own money to complete the film. The residents of Circle Court, the cul-de-sac in South San Francisco, where much of the movie was shot, were more than cooperative.
“It’s a very diverse street and they loved what we were doing,” said Benson.
He also shot a pivotal scene at the Stow Lake waterfall in Golden Gate Park. At a recent photo shoot to promote his film, Benson exuberantly suggested going to the waterfall. Once there, he was willing to pose pretty much anywhere, except under the falls. He climbed on some rocks and said, “How about if I jump?”
Then he willingly did about a dozen takes for the photographer to capture him.
“Eat the Rainbow” screens at the San Francisco International Film Festival April 13, at 7:45 p.m., and April 21, at 6:30 p.m., at the Roxie Theatre, as part of the Shorts 3 program. Tickets: sffilm.org.