‘Smile’ shining across local area

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 14, 2005

In the film &uot;Smile,&uot; which hit local theaters Friday, a young woman embarks on a trip that changes her life.

During her senior year in high school, Katie finds out about the &uot;Doctor’s Gift&uot; program, which helps with facial reconstructions and similar operations to those in need in other countries.

Deciding to take part, she lands in China, and her world does a 180 degree spin.

Email newsletter signup

Seeing the children who come to get the surgeries breaks her heart, overwhelms her, and, ultimately, inspires her. By the time her trip ends, she’s a new person.

For at least one Suffolk lady, it’s almost biographical.

Last March, Tess Smith, then a senior at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, prepared to take her first Operation Smile (OS) venture. A private, non-profit organization based in Norfolk, OS has been changing the lives of tens of thousands of people worldwide who suffered cleft palates and other facial deformities for more than 20 years.

The president of the NSA OS club, Smith collected roughly 1,500 toothbrushes from local orthodontists before hopping on a plane to Meknes, Morocco. The same day she arrived, Smith and the rest of the 42 volunteers started getting natives ready for their operations.

&uot;We played with the kids a lot,&uot; she said. &uot;We told them about the bas masks and what the doctors would look like, and got them accustomed to the equipment. If they were nervous, we comforted them. Blowing bubbles was a big hit. If you had a handful of toothbrushes, you were the most amazing person in the world. Everyone would crowd around you wanting one.&uot;

In her two-week trip, over 160 people received operations for cleft lips, cleft palates and burns.

&uot;It’s a life-changing experience,&uot; Smith said. &uot;In America, you take so much for granted. It’s so easy for a lot of teenagers.&uot;

About a month after she got back to the States, Smith found out about the flick.

&uot;I was really excited,&uot; she said. &uot;I was going to try to take everyone on a field trip when it came to Norfolk, but then I found out it was coming later.&uot;

She’s not the only young volunteer who could identify with the &uot;Smile&uot; main character; director Jeff Kramer based the character on his own daughter, also named Katie, whose own life was changed by an OS trip to the Philippines in 2002, when she was 16.

&uot;She made a telephone call (to me) and said, ‘Today changed my life,’&uot; Kramer said, referring to his daughter’s first day overseas. &uot;Since she made that statement, she’s been a different person.&uot;

For his first film, Kramer, a resident of Malibu, Calif. decided to move the story a bit.

&uot;I’d been to China once before, and I was fascinated by Chinese culture,&uot; he said. &uot;The work ethic is stupendous. China is simply an emerging power in the world – socially, economically and artistically. It’s where I wanted this production to be.&uot;

The flick, which started production in January 2004, stars Mika Boorem (&uot;The Patriot,&uot; &uot;Hearts in Atlantis&uot;) as Katie, Beau Bridges (&uot;Norma Rae,&uot; &uot;Fabulous Baker Boys&uot;) and Linda Hamilton (&uot;The Terminator&uot;) as her parents, and Yi Dang as Lin, the girl Katie meets that opens a side of her she never knew existed. Cheri Oteri (&uot;Saturday Night Live,&uot; &uot;Liar Liar&uot;) plays Linda, a nurse volunteer who becomes Katie’s confidant, and Sean Astin (&uot;Lord of the Rings&uot;) is Mr. Matthews, one of her teachers.

&uot;I’ve heard all of the horror stories of people who have worked in China,&uot; Kramer said of shooting on location, &uot;but I can tell you that no member of my crew watched the clock. &uot;Nobody has the work ethic these people do. We’d finish shooting at 4 a.m. and the owner of a noodle restaurant down the street in Jingxi would stay open for us.

&uot;I was treated brilliantly from my first day there.

&uot;Smile&uot; is not a documentary, Kramer said.

&uot;It’s designed to be a film that expresses family bonds and how much each of us can make a difference. It’s not designed to be a flag-waver for OS, but OS is part of the vehicle.

&uot;I’d like for people to walk away entertained. I’d like to see laughter and tears in everybody, and for them to know that everyone can make a difference in this world.&uot;

He’s not the only one.

&uot;We are honored that this movie grew out of a father’s desire to document his own daughter’s inspirational experiences during an Operation Smile medical mission to the Philippines,&uot; said Operation Smile CEO and co-founder Dr. William P. Magee.

&uot;We believe in the importance of empowering young people with a sense of service and leadership. And knowing that a portion of this movie’s proceeds will benefit our programs will help us to help more children around the world.

&uot;That is a real reason to smile.&uot;

The PG-13 film is playing at the Phoenix Main Gate Movies 10 at the Navy Exchange Mall Place (no pass required) at 1500 Mall Drive in Norfolk. A portion of the proceeds will go OS. Smith said she’d be there in the first few days.

&uot;I’m really excited,&uot; she said. &uot;It’s not just because it’s about (OS); it looks good as a regular movie.&uot;