Tribeca Film Festival 2024: Elexis Ray Goodwin Details The Power of Following Your True Passions in “Smile, God Loves You”

Interview with Elexis Ray Goodwin

A film festival debut for any aspiring filmmaker would bring about incredible elation but the premiere of “Smile, God Loves You” is especially heartwarming for writer/director Elexis Ray Goodwin. Coming from an extremely personal place, the short film, featured in the Unbought & Unbossed block of films, chronicles the life of a young basketball player named Skye, who’s forced to attend simultaneously monotonous and demanding dance recitals for her church by her deeply religious mother. The film excellently illustrates the internal precipice so many adolescents find themselves on. As Skye learns to be guided by her convictions and love for basketball, we see her authentic self emerge, channeling her determination to set a precedent for her family, her peers, and herself. As a Black, queer, female filmmaker, Goodwin too, has navigated through numerous challenges and strives to use her artistic voice to portray true and meaningful depictions of family, faith, sports, and community. 

Morgan Grier and Marie Francoise Theodore in “Smile, God Loves You”

Q. Skye’s story contains so much heart and personality. What did you draw from your own life to create Skye’s world? 

A. Skye’s story is influenced by experiences I had and things I felt growing up. A lot of her origin story is inspired by my own adolescent feelings of being torn between who I knew I was and what I was expected to become. The world we see on-screen is very rich because it comes from a very real place, and these are characters and places I know like the back of my hand. I wanted to create a world that felt very lived-in and authentic to these characters. It was also important to me since it was such a personally-inspired project, that I go and shoot the film in my hometown and in the spaces that actually hold a lot of significance in my own life. Each of the locations we shot in are real places where we didn’t have to dress anything or do too much set design. It was all very authentic and I think that’s why it comes across as such a rich and interesting world on film. 


Q.  The basketball sequences feature mesmerizing soft focus and motion blur that force the viewer to carefully watch each movement of the players and the ball. Talk about other cinematic choices that contributed to this impact. 

A. This project was a beautiful collaboration between myself and my DP Joshua Pausanos. In approaching how we wanted to shoot the project, we discussed fully immersing the audience in Skye’s perspective. She is our hero and being that it’s such a character piece, we wanted to use the camera to help us understand how she sees and interacts with the world. We shot the basketball sequences all on Steadicam in order to achieve that floating, “mesmerizing” feeling as you put it. When you are in those moments, it’s almost like time is passing by and you are just hyper-fixated on the movement of the ball and the bodies, like poetry in motion. That’s how Skye feels in those moments and that’s how we want the audience to feel as well. We also chose to shoot on 16mm film to bring that feeling of timelessness and nostalgia that only film can truly achieve. 


Q. The film makes a point to contrast the environments curated by church and basketball games but do you think the two share similarities?

A. I think that the contrast in the film is more between Skye and her mother than basketball and church alone. I don’t think those two things are inherently opposed to one another. In fact, I think the passion that Skye feels for basketball is very similar to the passion that her mother feels for church. I think the separation comes from Skye’s mother’s unwillingness to recognize that though Skye may not be following the same path that she has traveled, she is fully recognizing her own passions, gifts, and abilities. I think the contrast comes from Skye’s mother trying to force her into the box she thinks she belongs in, or the one that fits best with her religious beliefs. 


Q. How was working with the younger actors? How did your direction and their performances work in conjunction to elevate the film? 

 A. Working with younger actors was a very enriching experience for me. Children have such raw emotion and are fearless, so they give each performance their all, even if they may still be working on developing their attention spans. The hardest part for us to cast was our lead. For our supporting and background characters, we were working largely with non-actors and community casting but for Skye, we knew we wanted a traditional child actor that could carry the emotion of the character while still keeping up with the energy and naturalness of the rest of the kids. We were lucky enough to work with a great casting director who found Morgan Grier in the 11th hour. As soon as I saw her audition, I knew that she was the one for the role. She had a light in her eyes that I knew would carry on screen. She was able to balance the subtleties of the character with the grace and nuance of a seasoned professional. She matched the energy of the neighborhood kids and everyone’s performances blended beautifully to create a rich tapestry of characters. While I may have had some nerves about working with kids for the first time as a director, I think the experience ultimately made me a much stronger storyteller. 


Q. Did you see any of the other films in the Unbought & Unbossed block? What did you think of them? 

A. I felt very lucky to screen in the Unbought & Unbossed block. It was such a great mix of narrative and documentary, and the curation of the stories flowed very seamlessly. I thought “Black Hercules”  was a stunning visual masterpiece. The beauty and grittiness of those characters really shined on that film grain. I also was really inspired by Makayla’s story in “Makayla’s Voice: A Letter to the World”. After 3 screenings, it was still hard for me to hold back tears after watching her gain the tools to tell her story in her own words and through the voice of her choosing. It was incredibly powerful storytelling. 


Q. How can we follow Skye’s example and pursue our passions even when life seems to dictate our path?  

A. This is the million-dollar question I feel like. I think it’s easy to lose track of our own voice when life gets hectic or is pushing you down its own path. However, I would say that the best way to follow Skye’s example is to listen to what your inner voice is saying to you and follow that at all costs. Not saying it will be easy, we literally only see a glimpse of her journey, and anyone with a Black mom knows what’s happening to her once her mom gets a hold of her post-end credits [laughs], but consequences aside, she follows her truth and it leads her to joy and fulfillment. I think that’s the best way to follow her example in our own lives – follow your heart no matter what, or who stands in your way.

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