More than a decade ago, actresses Vanessa and Laura Marano, teenagers at the time, convinced their mother to option the rights to Alyson Noel's award-winning young adult novel Saving Zoe. Now, years later, they've finally made a film based on the book. It opens on Friday at AMC Solon and arrives on Video on Demand that same day.
The film follows Echo (Laura Marano), a teenage girl, as she looks to discover the truth behind her sister's (Vanessa Marano) murder. The movie aims to "bring to light how prevalent sex crimes and trafficking are online."
"Our mom, my sister and I optioned the book 12 years ago, if you can believe it," explains Laura Marano in a conference call with her sister. "It came from a point when we were frustrated with our acting careers. Our mom had the foresight to say, 'Let's take control of our careers and try to be in charge of our destinies.' She got a bunch of books with teen girls on the covers and got me to read them. I liked a bunch of them, but Saving Zoe was just something special."
Since the novel focuses on two sisters (one living and one dead), Vanessa Marano says she and her sister were naturally drawn to it. She says they also found the theme of the dangers presented by the internet to be intriguing.
"What it has that YA stories don't usually delve into is the important message about the internet and the world we're living in right now," she says. "The story of what happens to my character and the dark world she winds up unwittingly involved in is more relevant today than it was 12 years ago. That's something we connected with back then and kept up as we were going through with the film; we knew it was a story that needed to be told."
Laura Marano agrees.
"[The story] still has a Judy Blume aspect of coming from a teenage girl's point of view," she says. "She's starting high school, but you have her sister's murder. It dove into a world that you might not associate with teenagers. Studios and production companies told us, 'Teenagers don't want this. They want lighter and happier stuff.' Being teenage girls, we said, 'We kinda know what teenage girls want.' It was so scary for production companies at that point. Now, we live in a world where content for teenagers is a little darker."
The Maranos recruited Jeffrey G. Hunt (Riverdale) to direct the movie, and asked comedian Ken Jeong, a friend of theirs, to take on a serious role and play a therapist.
"Ken is amazing," says Vanessa Marano. "He's the kindest, most wonderful human being in the world. He was so excited to play a role that is a little darker."
The movie functions as a thriller, but it also has a strong message.
"I think the more important thing when you have an issue is to tackle it in as realistic a way as possible," says Laura Marano. "You don't want to be preachy or give a lesson. [The movie] deals with online sexual exploitation. We showed our movie to survivors of online sexual exploitation, and we were petrified. We were so beyond excited that they not only related to it but got emotional with it. At the end of the day, you have to make sure there is a heart to it and an emotionally delicate core that you're dealing with."