A short film about a Belfast schoolboy who wants to wear a dress for his First Holy Communion has won an award at a prestigious Italian children’s festival.
Just Johnny, the debut film script from actor-turned-writer Gerard McCarthy, picked up the Best Film gong in the Parental Experience category at the Giffoni International Film Festival in Campania, Southern Italy.
The event is one of the biggest children’s film festivals in the world, attended by up to 2,000 young people acting as audience and jury each year. The festival also attracts well-known guests, including Hollywood A-listers Amy Adams and Susan Sarandon.
Just Johnny was directed by Belfast’s Terry Loane, who also directed the 2004 comedy drama Mickybo and Me and, more recently, The Last Rifleman, starring Pierce Brosnan. The short, which was filmed in Belfast earlier this year, was produced by Shauna Shivers McAtamney and stars Martin McCann, Roisin Gallagher, Tara Lynn O’Neill and 10-year-old newcomer Daniel Willis in the role of Johnny.
Shivers McAtamney said she was delighted when she heard that the ‘iconic’ film festival wanted to include the short in its events programme but never expected it to win.
And she said winning the award was all the sweeter as it was an English language film, set in Belfast, going up against hundreds of international and Italian movies.
“Obviously we are very proud of the film and think it’s amazing, but you just never know when you’re competing against so many international films,” she said.
“Because ours is in the English language, it’s subtitled and it’s also a very specific Belfast story but at the same time, it has a universal theme about honesty, truth and the issues and challenges that can arise in any family.
“The film was written for all ages and to win the Parental Experience Award is brilliant because it means the film resonated with the adults as well, who watched it.
“On Saturday night, when the awards were announced, we received a message on social media from a young actor who was up in the same category, congratulating us and saying we deserved to win. That was lovely to hear.
“Everyone involved in the film is overwhelmed.”
Just Johnny, which was made with the support of Northern Ireland Screen and the Arts Council Northern Ireland Creative Industries Seed Fund Programme, was described by McCarthy as a “love letter to all the amazing parents out there”.
The former Hollyoaks star wrote the script in 2019. The film centres on Belfast parents Maria and Dermott, played by Gallagher and McCann, whose straightforward family life takes a sudden turn when their son, Johnny, announces he wants to wear a dress and not a suit, to make his Holy Communion.
Loane, who directed the short, said the team of film industry newcomers and veterans had pulled together to bring Johnny and his journey to life on the big screen.
And he said winning the award was a “wonderful result for the dedicated cast and crew who worked themselves into the ground to tell an important and timely story”.
“Daniel was especially great,” said Loane. “You'd think he'd been on film sets all his life. And Martin and Roisin gelled perfectly as his on-screen parents, showing the real and honest challenge of dealing with unexpected family issues.
“The film also shines a spotlight on many new locations in my neighbourhood of north Belfast, which makes me personally proud.
“I like to think that the film succeeds due to its positive message - something we all need in these gloomy and difficult times. To now know that a jury in such a prestigious festival in Italy has connected with an intimate Belfast story is very rewarding indeed for all those who put their heart and soul into it.”
Just Johnny was also selected for the recent Galway Film Fleadh.
Script-writer McCarthy, who is currently treading the boards in the West End in My Night with Reg, said he was “over the moon” with the accolade.
“I found out just as I came off stage on Saturday night,” he said. “A bottle of champagne was immediately opened.
“The award is testament to the amazing team who took the script and made such a beautiful film.”