The most personal film for Bill McAdams Jr. was also the most challenging. Now that Bully High is finished, it’s probably also the most rewarding project for the Aledo filmmaker.
The low-budget drama, which was more than five years in the making, will screen as part of the 53rd annual USA Film Festival this weekend at the Angelika Film Center at Mockingbird Station.
The film tackles bullying, discrimination, and stereotypes through various characters at a California high school, including a Pakistani exchange student (Aneesha Madhok) wearing a hijab, a Christian lesbian (Caroline Stella) who becomes her ally, and a popular girl (Plano’s Taylor Stammen) whose mean disposition conceals a dark secret.
“These flawed characters are so special to me,” McAdams said. “They’re all like my children. You want to nurture them.”
McAdams (Gallows Road) shot the first take in November 2018, endured various delays due to the pandemic and other logistical issues, and didn’t wrap until 2021.
“People told me that maybe I should shelve this film and not finish it,” he said. “But that just got me fired up.”
Some of the characters are derived from personal experiences. Many years ago, McAdams dated a Muslim woman from Egypt, with both sets of parents reluctant to give their approval.
“We spent a whole year together,” said McAdams, who worked as a double for Matt Damon on several movies before branching out into directing. “I didn’t drink for a year because she couldn’t. But the strain got to us.”
McAdams said Muslim students are bullied at an alarming rate in the United States, including by teachers — an issue that has been exacerbated since 2001. McAdams plays a closed-minded science teacher in the film.
Bully High proved cathartic for McAdams and some of the actors, and he hopes the underlying message of compassion will resonate with moviegoers across cultural and ideological backgrounds.
“It’s really a simple movie about love and acceptance, but there’s a lot of complex characters,” he said. “Silence is not the answer. If you throw it out there and talk about it, we can work through anything.”
Bully High has been touring festivals for the past several months while also screening on various online platforms. McAdams and several cast and crew members with North Texas ties will attend the Dallas screening.
The five-day festival begins Wednesday, and tickets are free for all shows — including local premieres of upcoming releases such as Chevalier, Master Gardener, Flamin’ Hot, Carmen, and The Pod Generation. Oscar-nominated director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules) will attend a screening of his latest film, the Swedish biopic Hilma.
The closing day lineup includes several projects of local interest, including a documentary chronicling Dallas character actor Matthew Posey, who launched the Ochre House Theater near Fair Park; a documentary about pioneer film producer William Greaves by Dallas director Walid Khaldi; and Tonic, a thriller from Fort Worth filmmaker Derek Presley — starring Billy Blair, Lori Petty, and Ed Westwick — that was shot in Dallas last summer.