EL MONTE >> When independent film director Anthony Solorzano decided to make his first feature film two years ago, he wrote it about two things he knows well —running and El Monte.
His new movie, “Varsity Punks,” tells the story of a high school star quarterback who suffers an injury and is forced to join the “punk” cross-country running team in order to keep competing athletically. But the difference between “Varsity Punks” and other movies with similar premises is that its setting and characters are all inspired by El Monte, and other San Gabriel Valley communities.
“The cool thing about any independent film is it’s a cool chance to give insight into subcultures,” Solorzano said, “And the subculture here is the San Gabriel Valley, El Monte, the Latino-Asian fusion. It’s very unique, and we know it so well, but mainstream Hollywood does not portray it, and if they try, it’s not well done.”
While the movie takes place in a fictional city, locals will recognize it immediately as El Monte, Solorzano said. The film’s “Monte Vista High School” is Mountain View, with the same colors, logo and letterman jackets as the school.
Vice Principal Jose Hernandez met Solorzano about seven years ago because both had run cross-country at Arroyo, though in different years. He said he was happy to support Solorzano filming at the school.
“It’s always good to see someone from the community show it in such a positive way,” Hernandez said.
Instead of simply holding casting calls in Hollywood, Solorzano held one at the Valley Mall. He figured actors living in Los Angeles would be willing to drive out to El Monte for a casting call, but unknowns from the San Gabriel Valley would have been unlikely to drive to Hollywood, Solorzano said.
As a result, many of the runners and extras in the movie are locals with little-to-no professional acting experience.
“It was encouraging to see so much natural, raw talent in the SGV,” Solorzano said.
The film’s biggest most recognizable star is Efren Ramirez, the Los Angeles native known for playing Pedro in “Napoleon Dynamite.” He plays the school track coach in “Varsity Punks.”
The film is finished now and could make its world premiere in El Monte in July before Solorzano takes it on a summer tour of independent theaters across the country.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Councilwoman Victoria Martinez proposed showing the movie for free in El Monte, possibly outdoors at Arceo Park. Martinez said she had been following the film’s progress on Facebook and reached out to Solorzano about setting up a showing. She thought the film would highlight the city in a positive way.
“Even just from watching the trailers, you can tell many of the scenes were filmed in locations we all know, like Mountain View and Arroyo high schools, the Emerald Necklace trail and P&L Liquor,” Martinez said. “El Monte residents can relate, and I think they’ll be proud to see their city on the big screen.”
Solorzano hopes to show the film in mid-July, before he’s set to leave for the first leg of his tour in Sacramento.
Not only is El Monte depicted in the film, its main financial backers are from the city, as well. Much of the funding for the film came from Solorzano’s friends and family, and the rest came from a Kickstarter campaign that raised about $13,000.
Solorzano’s goal for his tour, which will include stops in Seattle and Atlanta, is to build interest in the film and attract a distribution company to pick it up for a wider theatrical release.
What gives Solorzano hope, he said, is that “Varsity Punks” has picked up fans online from all across the country.
“While the film is set in the San Gabriel Valley, it tells an American story about teenagers coming of age and finding their places in their community,” Solorzano said.