Escaping Ohio director, star, and co-writer Jessica Michael Davis was 10 when she wrote a letter to Richard Linklaker with an idea for a sequel to one of his films.
“The first script that I ever wrote was for School of Rock 2,” she tells MovieMaker. “I actually wrote a cover letter casting myself in the film and I mailed it to Richard Linklater, who to this day is still my favorite director.”
Linklater never got a chance to write her back — after she sent the script to a P.O. box at Paramount, it came back to her with a “return to sender” stamp.
“I ripped it up,” she says. “We found pieces of the script in my memory box, little rough drafts, but unfortunately, the script no longer exists.”
Fortunately, she’s had plenty of other ideas since then: Davis directed and produced the new film, which she stars in alongside her co-writer, Collin Kelly-Sordelet. Davis also recently signed on to direct another, larger-budget teen movie, the details of which are under wraps, for now.
Much like Linklater’s films Dazed and Confused and Boyhood, Davis’ Escaping Ohio is a coming-of-age story. It follows her character, Sam, an 18-year-old high school senior who has to choose between staying in her hometown with JJ (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), the boy she loves, or leaving him behind to strike out for California.
“I always wanted the dream,” Davis says. “So I created it.”
A native of Akron, where the movie is based, Davis infused Escaping Ohio not only with her hometown’s spirit, but with all the tropes of classic teen movies: the “yup, that’s me” voiceover; the will-they-won’t-they best-friend dynamic; the pop song montages; the heartwrenching airport scene. But Escaping Ohio subverts the genre in at least one major way: It isn’t focused on the happily ever after.
“I never wanted the romance,” Davis says. “I wanted myself.”
Instead of making Sam and JJ’s love story the focus, she approached things “from a different, modern perspective while also not falling into that anti-rom-com trope of cynicism,” she says.
Enter Kelly-Sordelet, who took inspiration for his character, JJ, from iconic rom-com leading men like Paul Rudd in Clueless and John Cusack in Say Anything. And much like Adrien Grenier’s Nate in The Devil Wears Prada, his defining character trait is that he dares to ask Sam to prioritize him over her career ambitions.
“JJ is the very well-intentioned yet stupid boy that we all know, and that I very much have been at many times in my life,” Kelly-Sordelet says. “Sometimes you are just having such a good time and are so well-intentioned that you can lose sight of the larger picture.”
Although Kelly-Sordelet isn’t from Ohio — he grew up in New Jersey, not far from New York City — he can still relate to JJ’s fierce pride in his hometown.
“I don’t always agree with some of JJ’s perspectives or who he is, but at the same time, one of the things that was very easy was having a love for where I come from,” he says.
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What started as a script passed back and forth between Davis and Kelly-Sordelet during the height of pandemic boredom turned first into a short film, and then evolved into the feature-length version of Escaping Ohio.
“We were just really sick of not working and having no creative prospect and feeling relatively stagnant, and so we just started toying with this idea,” Kelly-Sordelet says. “A lot of it was just developing characters, and shaping certain scenes or finding areas where we could really pull out some more interesting dynamics.”
Emily Burgl (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Dirty John) plays Sam’s mom and Adam Pascal (tick, tick… BOOM!) plays her dad. In a nice closing of the loop, Pascal was also in School of Rock.
Others in the key cast include Alexandria Benford (FBI, Dynasty) and Carolyn Kang (Nora From Queens, Before I Go), who play two of Sam’s closest friends.
Escaping Ohio is semi-autobiographical for Davis: Like Sam, she also had a full-ride scholarship to study science at the University of Akron. But instead of being pulled to California, Davis was pulled to New York.
“I didn’t know what I wanted. I just knew it wasn’t around me and I needed to get out and go somewhere to find myself,” she says.
Kelly-Sordelet knew from very early on that he wanted to act.
“I grew up in a theater family. My dad is a stunt and fight coordinator and my mother is an acting teacher, and so they met at acting school at Rutgers back in the ‘80s,” he says. “I always grew up surrounded by theater, and seeing the behind the scenes and work that it took, and so that’s when I got bit by the bug really early.”
He had only spent one semester at Julliard when he was cast in The Last Ship, the Broadway musical featuring music and lyrics written by Sting that opened in 2014. He’s been working ever since, having also recently starred in The Ferryman on Broadway and in films like Wildling and Radium Girls.
Escaping Ohio offered Kelly-Sordelet his first shot at producing.
“One of the things that I definitely learned is just how to problem solve,” he says. “A film set isn’t going to work exactly the way you hoped for — problems will arise, or complications and obstacles you have to overcome.”
“Telling the story has been really, really special to me,” Davis adds. “Just knowing that you can be more than who you are in your small town.”
Escaping Ohio arrives later this year.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2023 print issue of MovieMaker Magazine.
Main Image: Jessica Michael Davis and Collin Kelly-Sordelet in Escaping Ohio, courtesy of Jessica Michael Davis.