Colorado-based actress Julie Crisante's experiences of abuse inspired her to write, direct and star in the psychological thriller Unfollower. The film was co-written and produced by her husband, Johnathan Aguero, through their production company, Loco Productions.
"I went through a chapter of my life, probably six to eight years ago, where it felt like I was getting knocked down over and over and over," Crisante says. "Like where you can't get up to breathe."
"By a man," Aguero adds.
"Yeah, by a man. I'll leave it at that," adds Crisante, not wanting to share the details of a situation in which she says she felt relentlessly attacked with her hands tied behind her back. When she tried to seek help from authorities, she says, she was met with apathy.
"I guess I did feel like a victim," Crisante admits, but she found an outlet for the stress and anger at the gym. She started working out, a lot, which helped her process the trauma she'd endured.
"I was coming to a place where I was feeling like a badass in my head," Crisante says. "I had dealt with all of this crap, and I'm okay. I'm not a victim. It took a while to get to that spot, but saying to myself, 'No, I'm a fighter,' I kind of wanted to express that outwardly."
So she started working on Unfollower, a movie that tells the story of Jo Kelley, an online personal trainer who is forced to fight to free herself from a cyberstalker who emerges from the internet into the real world to terrorize her. An intimate and emotional tale, Unfollower addresses domestic violence, suicide, cyber-bullying and abuse.
The film shows the unyielding nature of cyberbullying and how authorities too often ignore such cases. Crisante, who follows follows various fitness personalities on Instagram, says she frequently witnesses anonymous online trolls saying nasty and threatening things without facing any consequences.
In responding to such situations, Aguero describes the film as emotionally intelligent. "For me, watching it brings home the seriousness and the emotional toll that that kind of behavior takes," he says. "I think this [film] makes you feel the reality of all the anxiety and the trauma that it causes."
The movie's driving message: Freedom is worth the fight.
"Women are capable," Crisante says. "They have it inside of them to fight back. To speak out. And to not be a victim."
Currently in post-production, the film is set throughout Denver, at spots like the Blue Island Oyster Bar, Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant, Green Russell, CrossFit DeCO and even Mount Evans. Most of the cast and crew come from Denver's talented yet often overlooked creative community.
Women make up the majority of the cast and at least half the crew. "We thought that having crew members who identify with the subject matter would help make it a unique story," Aguero says, pointing to the gender disparity in high-profile jobs in the movie industry. Only 4 percent of the 100 top-grossing movies of 2018 were directed by women. Men hold the vast majority of director, producer and editor positions, as well.
The film should be wrapped by April 1, but it won't be available to the public for another six to nine months. Aguero already took a teaser to the American Film Market in Santa Monica, California, and several sales agents expressed interest. The next step is sending out screeners and then deciding on a distributor. They plan to enter Unfollower into a number of film festivals, too.
Marian Rothschild, a supporting actor, jumped at the rare opportunity to be a part of a full-length film made in Denver. "When I read the casting notice for this film, I somehow got a very clear vibe that this was the real deal," Rothschild says. "Everything about it was so well-expressed."
Ashley Deuell, who plays one of Jo Kelley's clients, was also excited to participate in a Colorado-produced movie, and reading the script sealed her commitment. "I hope audiences relate to Jo and realize their own strength," she says.