‘Smile’ tells the tale of 80,000 true stories

A local filmmaker, inspired by his daughter’s charity work, makes a film based on the mission of Operation Smile, a organization that provides free reconstructive surgery, mainly for cleft palates and cleft lips, to children worldwide.

By Zuzana Freeman/Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu resident Jeff Kramer made the move “Smile,” inspired by his daughter’s efforts with a charity program at Malibu High School that raised funds for Operation Smile, a program that provides free reconstructive surgery to children in more than 20 developing countries and in the United States.

“Smile,” a film shot in Malibu and China by writer/director Kramer, will be released April 8. The film stars several other locals including Linda Hamilton and Beau Bridges, whose family still has a home in Malibu, and former Malibu resident Neil Giraldo composed the film’s music.

“Smile” is based on more than “80,000 true stories” from the real-life charity, Operation Smile.

In the film’s storyline, Katie (Mika Boorem, “Blue Crush”), a teenage girl from Malibu, finds herself in the throes of growing up-clashing with her father Steven (Bridges) and mother Bridgett (Hamilton,) her boyfriends, her sexuality and a very privileged life. Half a world away in rural China, Lin (Yi Ding, “The Joy Luck Club”), born on the same day as Katie, faces a much different reality. Because of a severe facial deformity, a cleft palate, she lives a life of fear and shame and always covers her face in public.

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Lin’s father, Daniel (Luoyong Wang, “Miss Saigon”), has devoted his life to her, with hopes and dreams that her circumstances will change one day. The opportunity comes with the discovery of the worldwide “Doctor’s Gift” program. Inspired by one of her teachers (Sean Astin, “Lord of the Rings,” who plays Malibu High’s former Principal Mike Matthews), Katie volunteers and comes to China. Once there, she is deeply touched by the charity’s work. Katie takes off on her own into the heart of China to find Lin. A “smile” is brought to Lin’s face. Katie finds her soul, and their extraordinary connection becomes a life-changing experience for both teenage girls.

Writer and director and 25-year Malibu resident Jeff Kramer obtained special permission from the Chinese government to film “Smile” in both Shanghai and Kunshan/Jingxi, a 2,000-year-old town in Jiangsu Province. “It was almost a miracle. Making a fully licensed, creatively free film is almost unheard of in China,” Kramer said in a recent interview.

At first, the Chinese government was a bit suspicious of letting Kramer film in the remote locations, he said. However, they soon realized they could trust his team. “I took that as a great compliment, especially as this film deals with some controversial issues, like China’s one-child policy and finding an abandoned baby, which still happens there as it does in every part of the world,” Kramer said. “What the government is most concerned about is the way social and political issues are depicted. They don’t want to endorse anti-Communist rants … I can’t say that I blame them.”

Kramer has been in the entertainment business for 35 years and started off as a classically trained actor. “Smile” is the first film he has both written and directed. He is shooting his second film, “Flower in Brazil,” in the Amazon jungle later this year.

“I was very inspired by everyone who worked on this film,” Kramer said of “Smile.” “I think it is truly representative of what young people have available to them if they can open their eyes. I did not want to do it as a political piece with a message. When people walk out of the movie they actually feel as if they have been somewhere else. I believe that I have a responsibility to entertain people as a filmmaker.

“‘Smile’s’ cinematography, sound and music were just my vision and I gave the actors and actresses tremendous freedom in their roles. I tried to shoot everything from masters instead of close-ups.”

Former fulltime, 20-year Malibu resident Neil Giraldo, 49, composed the music for “Smile.” Giraldo started scoring for films four years ago after producing records for Pat Benatar and Kenny Loggins. He also produced all the guitars and base for Malibu resident, singer Rick Springfield’s new album.

Although Giraldo now lives in Maui, Hawaii, he still maintains a residence in Point Dume, where his daughter stays. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio and moved to Malibu in 1987. Giraldo was involved for many years in supporting the arts, working with another Malibu resident, Cindy Landon, and with Benatar to raise funds for Our Lady of Malibu School.

“While I lived in Malibu, I wanted to do anything I could to help the community out,” he said. “They called me Spider-I would play at events; I play the guitar, piano, bass and percussion instruments.”

Giraldo said the “great coast of Maui” inspired his work on “Smile.”

“I really enjoyed working with Jeff Kramer, the director,” Giraldo said. “The key to composing is the synergy between the director and myself. It really bought back the fun into composing. We plan to work together on many projects in the future. Jeff really loved everything I did and only made subtle changes.”

Kramer, who lives near Trancas Beach and Pacific Coast Highway and is a fan of surfing at Zero’s, south of Leo Carrillo, said he loves living in Malibu. “‘Smile’ was shot at Malibu High School and all the beach scenes were shot at Trancas Beach. It was a labor of love” he explained.

Kramer has four children, a daughter, Nicole, 30; Katie, 19; and two sons, Dalshiell,16, and Dusty, 13. Both boys currently attend Malibu High. “I encourage my children to do whatever makes them happy” he said of his parenting values.

Kramer’s daughter, Katherine, 19, the inspiration for Katie in “Smile,” is a dance and business major at Loyola Marymount University. She joined the Operation Smile Club while attending Malibu High School.

“I got really involved and realized how important and meaningful this was to me” she said. She became president of the Operation Smile Club, and was chosen to be the head of student programs for the organization. “I applied to go on a mission and was chosen. I was very nervous and not sure that I’d made the right decision. I didn’t know how I was going to respond when I actually came face to face with these kids,” she explained.

Katherine went to the Philippines in 2001.

“When we went into the hospital there, I saw all the kids with cleft lips and cleft palates and it was a culture shock,” Katherine said. “There were 245 [children] who needed facial surgery. There was such poverty everywhere. It was life-changing for me.”

Katherine is now setting up a student club for Operation Smile at her university.

“Smile” will be released in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area markets on April 8. Check local listings for theater and screen times. Partial proceeds from “Smile” will go to the international charity, Operation Smile.

Operation Smile, headquartered in Norfolk, Va. was founded in 1982 by Dr. William P. Magee Jr., a plastic surgeon, and his wife, Kathleen S. Magee, a nurse and clinical social worker. In 23 years, Operation Smile’s volunteers have provided free reconstructive surgery to more than 80,000 children and young adults in more than 20 developing countries. Cleft lips and cleft palates are the fourth largest birth defect in the world. During a typical two-week medical mission, approximately 300-400 patients receive free medical evaluations; an average of 100-150 are given free surgical treatment. For further information please visit www.operationsmile.org

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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