Last March, Jeremy Sklar’s first feature film, Tom of Your Life, made its festival debut at San Jose’s Cinequest at a prime time Friday night, cursed. As COVID-19 shut down California, the comedy-fantasy-drama premiered in front of an audience of 12, Sklar’s two brothers included; the rest of the fest was canceled entirely. Sklar, who’s in his early 50s and goes by Jer, spent a few days visiting family out west, then returned home to Logan Square where, holed up in his apartment, he watched a lot of Law & Order and furiously brainstormed ways to promote his film despite the pandemic lockdown. The movie was having some success streaming (it’s available on Amazon Prime and Apple TV as well as through other major outlets) when in September it got a break: Sun-Times movie critic Richard Roeper gave Tom of Your Life a big thumbs-up, calling it “lovely and brilliant and poignant,” a “strong feature debut by writer-director Jer Sklar, who also stars as Tom from ages 28-104.”
That’s right, age 104. The premise of the film is that a boy is inexplicably born with a condition that causes him to age four years every hour; in other words, he’ll die within a day. A nurse, Jess, skillfully acted by Yale MFA grad Baize Buzan, kidnaps the child to ensure he gets the chance to experience the world outside of a hospital ward. From there Tom of Your Life is part road-trip movie, a leisurely drive through rural Wisconsin (farms! autumn leaves! a diner!) toward Chicago and its sights (the Chicago Architecture Center boat tour and the el among them), Tom speeding through the years such that by the time they hit the city, he’s past adolescence and sporting a paunch.
The lead is played by four actors at different stages in life, young Judah Abner Paul most winsomely as a curious eight-year-old, and Sklar himself as a rapidly aging schlub with a heart of gold. The special effects makeup (by David Ian Grant) that takes Tom through death is accomplished enough to compare with the faux oldsters in Scorcese’s The Irishman, and the cinematography (by Christopher Rejano) and sound, a particular obsession of Sklar’s, are impressive, all the more so for a project made on a shoestring budget of about $150,000.
Sklar started as an actor, performing in Rick Cleveland’s thriller Kids in the Dark at Victory Gardens at age 15, then studying performance at the University of Southern California and taking private lessons training in the Meisner technique, a type of method acting. In his later 20s and early 30s he turned to songwriting and performing more intensively, supporting himself through jobs that included producing sounds for film as a Foley artist (“I was terrible at footsteps,” Sklar says, “but I was pretty good at props and cloth passes,” the technique used to make ambient noise). He spent a good bit of time managing a Little Tokyo apartment building above a Chinese restaurant. But he kept gravitating back to cinema, eventually getting his MFA at DePaul and teaching filmmaking as a visiting assistant professor at Purdue. And ever since the third grade, when he wrote jingles and then whole soundtracks for the short pieces he also scripted, directed, and starred in, Sklar has gravitated toward the gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork. (His band, the Blackstrap Molasses, provide the mumbly, mostly acoustic songs for Tom.) And why not? As his writing partner and coproducer James Sharpe told him just before they started work on the story and screenplay, “You’re already living with your parents while I crash at your place. What have you got to lose?”
Tom of Your Life makes its local premiere at the Music Box tonight, May 7, at 7 PM and runs at multiple times through Thursday, May 13, with a prescreening party (cash bar) for advance ticket holders on Saturday beginning at 5:45 prior to the 7 PM showing. It’s $11, online reservations required. v