Layla
Layla sings at a drug prevention walk, honoring her late Aunt Melissa. COURTESY LIFE WITH LAYLA

Life with Layla
Directed by Ken Spooner, Mike Mee

Wednesday, May 4, 7:30 p.m.

Montclair Kimberley Academy
Upper School Campus, 6 Lloyd Road

Q&A with co-directors Ken Spooner and Mike Mee, and producer Steve McCarthy to follow.
Co-presented by NJTV.
New Jersey Films competition

Montclairfilm.org

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

Both Mike Mee and Ken Spooner knew they wanted to make a documentary about heroin addiction.

“My dad put a newspaper in front of me every day, saying another kid passed, do your next film on this,” Mee said. “For me, that was my spark telling this story. Most people know somebody that was addicted, or died from addiction, or has a family member struggling with it.”

They put out feelers on Facebook asking if anyone would be interested in being filmed about the epidemic.

Spooner too said that he’s lost people to the addiction. “We started shooting in 2015. Steve [McCarthy] came on in 2017 as producer.”

McCarthy, news producer at the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University, had been Mee’s and Spooner’s professor when they were at MSU in 2013.

They were chosen to go abroad with McCarthy to Jordan for the making of “Hayatuna,” a documentary about  directed by the Swedish NGO Spiritus Mundi and its work to bring music to children in Jordan. “Hayatuna” played at Montclair Film Festival in 2018.

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“Life with Layla” is not a typical addiction film, Spooner said. It’s only about heroin, not about opioids or other addictions. It follows the family only over a nine-month span; there are no talking heads, no statistics.

“We show and don’t tell throughout the film,” Spooner added.

Layla is a 7-year-old girl, whose Aunt Melissa has died of addiction before the movie begins. She also speaks about the addiction and prison issues of other close family members. Her Uncle Greg’s heroin addiction is growing dangerous. Layla and her mom, Kate, work to bring Greg home.

“We thought it was a unique angle,” said Spooner. “I haven’t seen a young girl like her that’s mature and with it, that knows exactly what’s going on within her family. We thought it was a unique idea to make her the storytelling device.”

And having her speak will remind audiences of how addiction impacts a whole family, said Mee. “This epidemic that is occurring is ultimately going to affect children, if things don’t change. If we don’t do something about this problem, the next generation of high school students is at stake as well. It was important to chow the younger angle,” he said.

People in Layla’s family talk about heroin addiction as a disease, and addiction in general, to alcohol or other substances, seems to be a family burden.  

But it isn’t a disease that’s airborne, like Hepatitis, and some people would say that it’s a choice.

Spooner said that though they don’t appear in the film, experts they spoke to explained that the drugs change the brain after addiction. It is a choice to take them but it becomes a physical illness.

“The grandmother didn’t want to interview with us. She’d suffered with alcoholism. I think she’s doing the best she can.” In the film, the grandmother talks about how on each of her birthdays, one of her kids has been in jail. “Some of the things almost seem routine for the family, in a weird way. This year someone’s in prison, this year someone else.”

Layla’s mother Kate is the one that holds that family together after the death of Kate’s sister Melissa. She’s also the only one that doesn’t have an addiction issue, said Spooner. Kate manages to be a great mom to Layla and her younger sister Alanna.

And Kate works to raise awareness, goes on addiction walks, Mee added.  

“What’s important that people take away is that they’re humans,” said Mee. “That’s why we spent such a long time with one family. We wanted to show the good, bad and ugly. None of us are perfect. That’s the takeaway. They are not just homeless addicts in an alleyway, they are uncles, brothers, fathers.

“And it’s another reason we focused on Layla.”