Filmmaker Daniel Stine was in Duluth scouting locations for his Minnesota-flavored feature-length movie when he got an invitation he couldn't refuse: Rhubarb Festival.
"Whenever I hear something like that, I have to go see it," said Stine in a phone interview.
The perennial plant-based celebration, a regularly scheduled June fundraiser for CHUM, is a day of rhubarb desserts, rhubarb sausage, rhubarb lemonade in addition to rhubarb themed arts, crafts, games, music, occasionally a quirky rhubarb poem.
And, the thing that really caught his eye, the fest's larger-than-life, leafy-haired, long-lashed mascot, Rhubarbara.
"Through the crowd, there was this 7-foot rhubarb stalk walking around," Stine recalled, then said he thought: "What in the world is that, and how do we fit it in the movie."
Rhubarbara makes the cut in Stine's comedic drama - or dramatic comedy - "Virginia Minnesota," which gets a screening at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Clyde Iron Works to kick off Duluth-Superior Film Festival. It plays again at 9 p.m. June 2 at Zinema 2.
Stine and lead actor Rachel Hendrix will be in attendance and, like all events during the five-day film fest, screenings are free and open to the public.
Rhubarbara's local-bait cameo comes in the latter half of the movie during a dance party set at Split Rock Lighthouse. Neon lights, glowing lanterns, catchy tunes. When Lyle, played by Hendrix, goes looking for her friend Addison (Aurora Perrineau), she's directed to a crush of partiers.
"She's having a dance-off with Rhubarbara," another character says, pointing at the stalk, which is in the midst of some head-bending, arm-waving choreography.
Rhubarbara is on-brand with the quirky movie, part comedy-part drama, that was filmed along the North Shore in 2016. "Virginia Minnesota" is the story of a group of women who were raised at a home for girls (played, externally, by Glensheen mansion) - which is ultimately shut down when one of the girls drowns while taking a sneaky, middle-of-the-night boat trip on Lake Superior. Fifteen years later, the women are called back to the estate for the reading of a will, but Addison, a wildcard, opts out. Lyle, a travel blogger currently lugging around an Alexa-esque talking suitcase-slash-inanimate Instagram star named Mister, cruises up to Grand Marais to drag Addison to the reunion.
A lot of chaos - including a folk creature made of yak fur - ensues as they make stops at North Shore landmarks and spots off the beaten state park path.
The movie premiered at Cinequest Film Festival in March and has played at more than a handful of festivals so far. It won an award at Beloit (Wis.) International Film Festival, and its most high-profile write-up is a mixed review from Hollywood Reporter, which picked the plot, dug the actors, and ultimately rooted for Stine's future in the biz. Big kudos to the backdrop, though. The publication credited Stine and cinematographer Pedro Ciampolini with the "use of northern Midwestern locations that are seldom glimpsed on the big screen, building an evocative sense of place."
About that 'evocative sense of place'
Stine found Grand Marais during one of his cross-country drives, he said. On this trip, he had traveled down from Thunder Bay, Ontario, and landed in the shoreside town in the middle of the winter. He had to set a story there, he said.
"I'm inspired by locations above anything else," he said. "I see an amazing place and see what characters would be there and how it would play out."
He originally planned to keep the story in Grand Marais, but as he traveled outward, he found more.
"My story kept getting bigger," he said.
Stine was living in Los Angeles when he wrote "Virginia Minnesota" - he since has moved to Atlanta - and he kept a map and photographs of the region. He wanted to stay true to the geography, he said. Storywise, it has a sliver from his own history. His grandparents ran a home for young boys from broken families in Pennsylvania, he said. He grew up hearing stories about the children.
This is the first feature-length film for Stine, who also acts and directs. His other works include the shorts "Grape," "The Championship Rounds" and "God and Vodka." He said there is another movie in his head - a thriller - also set in Minnesota.
A week before his return to Minnesota, Stine had plans to settle in and relax - for the first time: Gunflint Tavern, Grand Portage, nature.
When he wrote and directed "Virginia Minnesota," he didn't have a connection to the state.
"But it feels like I do now," he said.
IF YOU GO
What: Duluth-Superior Film Festival opening night screening of "Virginia Minnesota"
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 30
Where: Clyde Iron Works, 2920 W. Michigan St.
Tickets: Free, open to the public
In attendance: Daniel Stine, writer-director; Rachel Hendrix, actor
Rerun: 9 p.m. June 2 at Zinema 2, 222 E. Superior St.
Rest of the Fest: Runs May 30-June 3 at venues in Duluth and Cook County. See next week's News Tribune for more info or go to ds-ff.com.