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Whatever: The Wheeling film that Almost didn’t get Made, Part Two

Cassie Bendel

Posted on May 15 2021

Whatever: The Wheeling film that Almost didn’t get Made, Part Two

by Christina Fisanick

Obviously, 1981 Mount graduate, Michelle Yahn, was incredibly disappointed when she was told that Whatever, the movie she was co-producing with writer and director Susan Skoog, could not be filmed at the Mount, but she was undeterred. She marshalled her Wheeling connections (and those of her parents) to gain access to homes, land, vehicles, and so much more that gives Whatever its small-town character that is at once distinctively Wheeling and Anywhere, USA.

 

Wheeling folks will love reveling in this movie in which familiar sites appear in nearly every scene: the Convenient store on Bethany Pike, the Fostoria Outlet and I-70 onramp on National Road near Fulton, and Victorian Woodsdale homes in all of their leaded glass window and solid oak woodwork finery.

Wheeling came together, as it still does when times are tough, to make this movie. In addition to providing extras for the many party scenes throughout the film, the people of Wheeling provided props and equipment (Sam O’Brien’s Rent-All and Sales), food (remember Christopher’s Cafeteria?), and even legal advice thanks to Yahn’s late father’s law firm partner, David Sims.

In a 1998 interview with the Wheeling Intelligencer announcing the upcoming release of the movie, Yahn told reporter Michelle Blum: “When we didn’t think we could get a certain shot or couldn’t get a certain piece of equipment for the right price, Sean [O’Brien] was right there, and Dave [Sims] helped us with locations. We used his parent’s house and another house on Hamilton Avenue and an empty story front at the Elm Gove Crossing Mall.”

Even the Ohio County Public Library got involved by providing 1970s-era furniture for some of the key scenes, which gives the audience a full experience of the movie’s era: straddling the end of the 1970s and early 1980s. It was the tail-end of free love and the infancy of the “Just Say No” movement. President Reagan had been shot, and a wave of moral conservativism was blooming just over the horizon.

 

If You’re from Here, then you Know

But the inherent Wheeling-ness of this film goes deeper than backdrop. As Yahn said, “Whatever embodies the spirit of Wheeling,” in both how it came to be and its storyline, including her experiences at the Mount.

In a scene that’s obviously a delicious nod to the school, 17-year old Anna, bored and resentful for having been brought on her mother’s date, tells the rich, old suitor that after she graduates high school she doesn’t want to go to college. To his befuddlement she declares with covert sarcasm, “I want to become a nun. I want to marry Jesus Christ.”

Later, Anna and her best friend, Brenda, head off to New York City without telling their parents, a trip that Yahn and her Mount besties took one spring weekend. They asked permission from their Mount advisors, and off they went to the Big Apple with no adult supervision to explore a school one of them wanted to attend, and, of course, to party. Like Anna and Brenda, they returned home unscathed if not wiser to the ways of the world.

 

However, Wheeling Park High School stands in for the Mount in all of the high school scenes, which were shot beginning Memorial Day weekend in 1997. In a fluke moment, the very last scene of the movie captures the Wheeling Park marching band practicing in the school’s parking lot as Anna peddles away on her bicycle having learned, according to Yahn, “some of the most difficult and important lessons of her life and [found] the threshold of who she wants to be.” The production crew hadn’t planned on the band practicing the day, but it proved to be the perfect ending to a movie that highlights the radical imperfections of the passage into adulthood.

Whatever Happened to Whatever?  

Whatever did well on the independent film circuit, including a showing at Sundance, and later was released on home video by its distributor, Sony Pictures Classic. In 2018 Whatever received a rare 20th anniversary screening at Quad Cinema in New York City on November 10. Liza Weil (Anna), best known for her role as Paris Geller on the hit show Gilmore Girls, and Skoog were in attendance for the question-and-answer period after the screening.

In a lead up to the event, Steve MacFarlane of Filmmaker Magazine, interviewed Skoog, who said of the film: “I just felt that at the time, there had never been a really realistic depiction of the teenage girl experience as I remembered it. My desire was to make a film that was a little more realistic to what me and my friends experienced. I love The Breakfast Club, but I felt a lot of those films were a little sanitized.”

And Whatever is definitely not sanitized. It opens with a gang rape scene that reveals nothing visually other than the young woman’s face and the rapists giving her more whiskey to drink between violations. Later in the film that same character, Anna’s best friend Brenda, is raped and beaten off screen by her stepfather, who she later bludgeons nearly to death with a fire poker—again, off screen. Skoog proves that it is possible to create strong emotional reactions in the audience without satisfying the male gaze, which demands access to visual provocation. Instead, it privileges the female experience while clearly arguing against the socially constructed prison into which women find themselves imprisoned based purely on anatomy.

 

In a riveting scene in the last third of the movie, Anna learns that she was not accepted at Cooper Union College. Her mother, seeing her daughter’s face crumple in sadness, strokes her hair and warns, “Don’t expect so much. It’s a little easier that way.” But Anna takes no heed of this message, one that culture taught her mother with a heavy hand and significant consequences. Instead, she follows Yahn’s reminder taken from the Mount de Chantal motto: “Be who you are and be that well.” Anna is well on her way.

To see this incredible well-made movie, which includes an all-star 80s soundtrack (Chrissie Hynde! Blondie! David Bowie!) and plenty of 1997-era Wheeling, rent or buy it on Amazon or other online retailers. Regrettably, its themes remain relevant, and the acting is superb.

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Christina Fisanick, PhD is an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches expository writing, creative nonfiction, and digital storytelling. She is the author of more than 30 books, including the memoir, The Optimist Food Addict (MSI Press, 2016) and the guide, Public History as Digital Storytelling (Routledge Press, 2020). She is also the author of dozens of articles, essays, and poems, including nearly sixty pieces about Wheeling history, which have appeared at Archiving Wheeling, Weelunk, InWheeling 

magazine, and The Intelligencer. Christina lives in Wheeling with her son and two cats. She can be found online at https://christinafisanick.com/

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