I had the pleasure of attending the private fine-cut screening of CASHED, an indie film written by (and starring) Serena Ryen, and directed by (oh and hey, featuring) Ethan Itzkow. What a delight. ish.
I mean, it’s dark, But hilarious. It’s a legit look at addiction, with pot-smoking as the subject of said addiction, which is interesting in and of itself, because we all know pot is non-addictive, except it’s totally addictive if that’s your jam.
We meet Jess while she’s celebrating her 25th birthday, partying with her friends. She’s the perfect Brooklyn white millennial, clearly a transplant from not-Brooklyn, living the dream. And we also see her wake up, quite literally, and this young woman is a mess. Her life is falling apart, she is entirely the cause of that, and she just wants the next deep inhale.
As addiction portrayals go, this is quite effective, because it’s clear that the pot is the problem, and it’s also clear that she is the problem, and the two have a symbiotic relationship. When you know you’re fucked up and making fucked up choices, that becomes one more excuse to stick with your vice–if you’re a fucked up person, you’re still going to be fucked up without the pot, so the pot isn’t the problem, so why give it up? Dope fiend logic is the best, you guys.
This 10-odd minute film does its job beautifully–opens a door, invites us to peer in, leaves us asking a bunch of questions and wanting them answered. Serena Ryen is hilarious, tragic, and just freaking mesmerizing — a bleary-eyed, kinda gross Disney princess — and you can’t help but want to spend more time with her. If you were to consider this a slice, CASHED feels like the first, not final, ten minutes of a film, and it’s a ride you’d happily take.
THEN I INTERVIEWED SERENA AND ETHAN!
Roberta Lipp: Congratulations on this film, I heart it! So talk to me. What was the inspiration? The process?
Serena Ryen: Thank you! It started for me as a curiosity about the internal life of addiction. Then I had one of those days when just everything was going wrong and the “little things” were really getting under my skin, and I wondered what it would be like to watch a film about a female lead who’s contending with all those day-to-day problems that, under the right circumstances, can just completely overwhelm you. Especially when they’re compounded with unstable income and the hyper-competitiveness of our culture – two things that a lot of millennials are dealing with these days. As far as the process, it was kind a dream come true actually. And I don’t say that flippantly. I think Ethan, (Director of Photography) Jorge Arzac and I all take really good care of each other and have developed a level of creative and collaborative trust that’s rare and really special.
Ethan Itzkow: CASHED, for me, is a culmination of all my feelings of frustration regarding the economy we Millennials were thrust into, the dangers and bullshit we deal with in regards to marijuana prohibition, and how my personal cannabis use is tied into the near constant state of stress I find myself in. What inspired me initially was a little note in Serena’s phone about scenes we could write to improve our reels, and thankfully that little note blossomed into this passion project which has become a vehicle for exploring and expressing my daily existence in mega expensive, mega stressful NYC. The process itself has been beautiful, maddening, and challenging. While I had lots of experience on set as an actor, and experience writing/directing in the theatrical world, film was a new medium to me from the creative side of things. My personal process boiled down into knowing what I wanted to see onscreen, knowing what I wanted to audience to perceive, and finding a textual or video source to teach me how to do it! I read a 1k page textbook cover to cover before we started pre-production, and that was just so I could communicate with the team! The rest of the process was similar. Have an idea, have no idea how to execute it, and find out.
RL: You both have theatre backgrounds. Why the switch to film?
SR: I wouldn’t say that we’ve “switched” so much as “expanded”. We both love doing theatre and intend to do both theatre and film/tv for the rest of our careers, but the industry is changing in a way that it’s becoming more and more necessary to be able to create your own work. We’ve both produced plays in the past and, frankly, it’s a lot harder to get butts in the seats. Anyone can watch a short film on their laptops at home. Producing a film was also a new challenge – we both love testing our abilities and learning new skill.
EI: Theatre is my first love as a performer, but as the economy and the industry has changed, it became more and more apparent that people (myself included!) are getting their stories from their screens. I’m guiltier than anyone; my primary source of entertainment is Netflix. And thinking back on how I’ve consumed stories in my life, I’ve primarily read books and watched movies or television. Don’t get me wrong, I go to the theatre as often as I can, but when you get the majority of your moral compass watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, as an artist you can’t help but drift into the medium you’ve been exposed to the most. There’s such fantastic reach now with streaming platforms that you can make an impact on a lot of people in a lasting way that theatre can’t match. While theatre is crucial, and magical, the second you leave the theatre it exists only in your mind. It’s inherently ephemeral. There’s a very special draw to creating something you can see again and again, and that others can enjoy again and again.
RL: I have my own views of millennials, but it’s interesting that you are exploring from like, the inside. So how do you view millennials and why do you think the current stereotypes about your generation exist–and are they valid? How did you want to explore societal perceptions of millennials through “CASHED” and the character of Jess?
SR: Hm. That’s an interesting question. I think the recession of 2008 has a lot to do with the fact that, in general, millennials have different priorities than the baby boomers had when they were our age. For the most part, we’re not striving for the “good jobs” and picket fences that our parents worked towards, because the economy was in such a different place when we came of age than when our parents did. So many millennials are drowning under astronomical student loan debt and much higher costs of living than our parents dealt with, and meanwhile, those expensive college degrees aren’t as valuable in the job market simply because they’ve become the norm. So in lieu of steady nine-to-fives, millennials are working more service sector and “gig”-like jobs to make ends meet. I think that gives us a bad rep because the baby boomer generation takes it to mean that we’re lazy or entitled, when really we’re just trying to survive through a set of circumstances that’s dramatically different than the generation before us. I think we’re a generation that’s resilient as fuck but in general we’re overworked. Jess, the main character of the film, works her ass off and rarely ever gets a day off. We wanted to explore how her financial reality affects her stress level and what she does to cope. If you’ve ever worked a job like waiting tables or walking dogs, if you’ve ever felt stretch beyond your emotional or financial means, and especially if you smoke pot, I think you’ll find her flight very relatable.
EI: I love my generation. We’re the most educated, most technologically adept, most interconnected generation in American history. We’re a uniquely entrepreneurial and creative generation, partially because of our own eclectic interests and boundless optimism, but also (and more importantly) because we have to be. Unions have been busted, the economy has been wrecked, and employer loyalty is non-existent. We’re an entire generation dealing with the gig economy and massively inflated living and education costs; we have no choice but to be creative in how we solve problems and survive.
And we get a bad rap because of it. Older generations are looking at us eschew normative things like workplace habits, gender and sexuality norms, materialism, and they don’t know how to handle it. We’re apparently serial killers of American industries like shitty canned beer and chain restaurants, and that’s somehow a bad thing. We don’t have disposable income! Why would we waste our precious few dollars on Chili’s and Coors? And Jess, for me, is my love letter to our generation for everything that we are and can be. She’s intelligent, resourceful, and on the whole responsible. Sure, she makes mistakes, because every young person stumbles, but ultimately she’s everything I love about our generation.
RL: This story is a specific story about one young woman, but it’s also about issues like economics and it’s also about pot. How do you think those things intersect? How do you feel about pot’s legal status?
SR: I think, to a certain degree, a fair amount of Jess’s problems stem from the fact that the one thing that helps calm her nerves is illegal. If she could just go down to the corner store and buy a small amount of a low THC – high CBD strain from a licensed vendor, she’d be able to get the medicine she needs to quell her anxiety without putting herself at risk. One could make the argument that her relationship to weed is unhealthy, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find an American adult who doesn’t use something – whether it’s pot, coffee, sweets, or Netflix – to unwind after a hard day. Millions of Americans prefer cannabis over Big Pharma for their medicinal needs and over alcohol and other drugs for recreation. For a lot of people, it would be a much safer option than prescription drugs if it weren’t for its illegality.
EI: CASHED I think is a really good representation of my feelings on how intense economic pressure enhances one’s natural inclination to escape from a painful reality. For Jess, she uses cannabis in a variety of ways; as medicine, as entertainment, and of course as an escape. While she uses cannabis, you can replace cannabis with a lot of things and the story still holds true. People play video games, watch movies, eat doughnuts, masturbate, whatever. Stress makes you feel like you need self care. In extreme cases, one could be pressured into, or choose on their own, to partake in dangerous forms of escapism, like heroin. In Jess’ case, it’s cannabis, but the impulse is the same. Reality hurts, man. And sometimes you need help taking the edge off, especially when you can’t afford to go out and have fun at a theme park or something.
Admittedly, I’m a cannabis user. I hate how alcohol makes me feel, and I rarely drink. I’m very pro-legalization, and I say that as someone who once locked their friends outside in cold weather when he found out they were smoking pot (it was highschool, I was super straight edge…you know how it goes).
The war on drugs, especially its focus on such a low-risk drug like cannabis, is destructive. Jess goes through a lot of crap because what makes her feel better is legally inaccessible, and that’s by far the LEAST of the issues with cannabis prohibition. Keeping cannabis illegal ruins lives, especially black and brown ones, and the ridiculousness needs to end. At the same time, it’s not like pot is risk-free, and I think “CASHED” is a really balanced view on the realities of someone who might feel psychologically dependent on pot.
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