Emma Grace Wright was in her first year of film school at NYU Tisch School of the Arts when she began to get the itch. As a middle schooler in 2014, she’d watched her younger brother, Beau, act in a film alongside Hollywood stars Boyd Holbrook and Elizabeth Banks, and saw the joy that it brought him. When, after five years, no other roles came for him, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
Emma Grace wrote her debut short film, “The Deep End,” in early 2019. The 10-minute film stars Beau, who has Down syndrome, as a middle school student struggling to fit in. When a classmate he hardly knows invites him to a party, both boys find themselves in unfamiliar waters, navigating a friendship that challenges the status quo.
In making the film, Emma Grace first reached out to local production company Lighthouse Films, with whom she interned while in high school. They then introduced her to Honey Head Films, the female-fronted production company led by North Carolina natives Erika Edwards and Kristi Ray (who won encore’s Best Filmmakers 2019). From the start, both companies supported Emma Grace’s mission of bringing people with disabilities to the big screen. “Everyone was so friendly and kind to Beau and just made it a great experience, especially for my directorial debut,” Emma Grace says.
“The Deep End” was shot over three days in Wilmington in August, while Emma Grace was on break from NYU. Filming took place in the Wrights’ neighborhood and was largely a family affair. Emma Grace and Beau’s mother, Amy, plays Beau’s mom in the film, too. “It was a real mother-son relationship, which was important to me because I wanted it to come off authentic,” Emma Grace says.
It’s a similar dynamic to the one at Bitty and Beau’s, the Wilmington coffee shop owned by Amy and her husband, Ben. The shop is named for the Wrights’ two youngest children, both of whom have Down syndrome. Bitty and Beau’s has made waves nationally for giving employment opportunities to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. (The family also has an older daughter with autism.) On the day encore spoke with Emma Grace, the entire Wright clan was at the New Center Drive location helping out. Emma Grace was filming a promotional video—something she often does for the business.
“The Deep End” will screen for family and friends at The Pointe 14 Cinemas on January 5. While Emma Grace refers to it as a “private screening,” it is open to the public. However, interested parties should RSVP on Facebook, as space will fill up quickly.
It’s hardly Emma Grace’s first time championing people with disabilities. As a 17-year-old, she launched the Valorem Film Festival, showcasing the need for those with disabilities to be highlighted in film. The inaugural festival screened eight short films and one feature, all at The Pointe. “I love how they do such a nice job of hiring people with disabilities,” Emma Grace says of the theater. While the event had to be put on hold when she left for college, Emma Grace says she’s seen significant strides in the representation of people like Beau in film.
“There’s still a ways to go, but I think the industry is starting to realize you can use people with disabilities, and their stories are real and worthy of being told, just like any other story.”
She credits films such as 2019’s “The Peanut Butter Falcon”—about a man with Down syndrome who runs away from a residential nursing home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler—with helping bring a spotlight to those with disabilities. She also saw this change up close when the NBC series “New Amsterdam” filmed in Brooklyn this fall. Emma Grace acted as a technical consultant for the show, helping actress Gigi Cunningham (who has Down syndrome) communicate with the director and memorize lines.
“The Deep End” marks an important step in the careers of both Emma Grace and Beau. Beau, in particular, has earned new fans. “Beau is such a trip!” says Honey Head’s Kristi Ray. “He is a natural entertainer and really shined in the spotlight.”
Ray credits Emma Grace’s steady directorial hand with creating an atmosphere of familiarity and trust on the set. She also cite’s Beau’s enthusiasm with making the project fun to work on. “Beau made a habit of boisterously applauding the crew and himself after each take, which became the norm and brought a lot of levity,” she says.
Beau’s last film, “Little Accidents,” took him to the Sundance Film Festival—a lofty precedent, but one Emma Grace finds inspiring. Already she’s submitted “The Deep End” to the Tribeca Film Festival, Reel Abilities Film Festival: New York, and RiverRun International Film Festival. Each is highly competitive, with little guarantee the participants will find distribution. Regardless of the outcome, Emma Grace remains resolute in her goals.
“We’re just trying to set an example for our community and for the world that people with disabilities need to have a place in our society that’s valued and accepted.”