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BYU graduate writes, stars in film that explores disability

Andrew Justvig, center, wrote and stars in a film in the works called "The Anxiety of Laughing." The film was shot last week and explores what it means to have a disability.

Andrew Justvig, center, wrote and stars in a film in the works called "The Anxiety of Laughing." The film was shot last week and explores what it means to have a disability. (BYU)


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Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — A film written by and starring a Brigham Young University graduate will make its way to a streaming service and potentially film festivals in the coming months.

And it tells a story not often represented in film.

Andrew Justvig, who was born with cerebral palsy, has long dreamed of making a career working for Disney. He wrote plays in his Master of Fine Arts program at UC-Riverside, but "I never set out to make a movie," Justvig said.

The opportunity to see an award-winning play he wrote, "The Anxiety of Laughing," filmed for a new streaming service, the Disability News Report, fell into his lap, Justvig said. The plan was to film a stage production of the play to be directed by one of Justvig's former professors at UC-Riverside, Robin Russin.

But Russin discussed the project with his friend Michael Bulbenko, who is part of the production development team at Fujifilm and an "expert cinematographer." Stage plays presented on film often don't turn out as well as one would hope, Russin noted.

"He said, 'Well, this doesn't make sense, we should just make a movie,'" Russin recalled.

Bulbenko joined the project, as well.

"Part of it was that Fuji was drawn to Andrew just like everybody else is, they were excited by him and his story, and we decided, 'OK, let's make a movie,'" Russin said.

"The Anxiety of Laughing" tells the story of a stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy who is helping his fiancee — who is abled — deal with their challenges. It also explores the lead character's dynamic with his fiancee's mother, who is hesitant about her daughter's relationship, Justvig said.

On a small budget and without the backing of traditional filmmaking platforms, they filmed last week at Justvig's in-laws' home while the in-laws got sent on a vacation. Though they met the first day of filming, Justvig says he bonded with his co-star, Brandi Robinson, who played his girlfriend, as they stayed at that home. It helped them play their roles despite having only met the first day of filming.

Russin said the cast was so invested in the story that they "just made it happen," completing the shoot in just five days.

"For me, weirdly enough, it was the easiest shoot I've ever done, because everybody was just working like clockwork together and really paying attention," Russin said, explaining that he's worked on shows like "America's Most Wanted" and various theater projects.

Out of the five scripts he's written, this is the most important, Justvig said.

"I just hope they buckle up because it is funny, but it's the truth, and sometimes truth is painful," Justvig advised potential viewers.

Russin noted that often in movies that deal with disability, abled actors play disabled characters. But now, the film industry is coming to the understanding that authenticity matters in casting.

"And here, we actually have Andrew, who has cerebral palsy, playing the character of someone who has cerebral palsy. There's authenticity to it that I think is different than the way disability has been shown before," Russin said.

The script provides insights into not only what it means to be born with a disability but what it's like to become disabled "when you don't have that as part of your normal experience," Russin said.

"So this is a play that I think has a great deal to share with the abled community, and also with the disabled community. I think it speaks to both, because it's a very realistic, gentle, loving, but not evasive look at what life is like for people who live with disability," he added.

Justvig said he wanted to explore what it really means to be disabled.

"And I really wanted to show that in my own life, people don't see me and my wife when we are alone. The truth is, I do a lot of the cleaning, because my wife has a full-time job, and now a baby. I really have become the go-to partner, so that's kind of the background," he explained.

Throughout filming, Justvig remembers thinking: "There might be someone out there who needs this movie, and whether God or if a higher power made all these pieces fall into place."

But Russin attributes the film getting made to Justvig himself.

"Andrew is such a light, and such an attractive person in so many ways, that people are just drawn to him," he said. "Andrew is the type of person who just by being there, makes people want to work with him."

For updates on the film, visit its social media account on Instagram @theanxietyoflaughing.

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