Huff Post calls it “a charming indie comedy that explores the challenges of finding — and maintaining — a chosen family.” Outburst Arts calls it “A surprising and bittersweet comedy,” and The Queer Review calls it “gorgeously directed.”
According to Edge Media Network, Flaherty the director is assured and bold in his choices. Flaherty the writer, incisive, sassy and authentic, taking stereotypes and inverting them. Flaherty, the actor? Sheer perfection.
This acclaim is only a small sampling of industry praise circulating about Chrissy Judy, the 2022 feature debut of Swedesboro native Todd Flaherty who wrote, directed, and starred in the picture.
Thirty-seven-year-old Flaherty attended Swedesboro/Woolwich Elementary and Kingsway High School. He moved to New York City at age 19 to study acting at NYU’s Tisch School of The Arts.
“I got my start as an actor, that was always my first love. Getting into NYU really changed the trajectory of my life, not only because of the training I received there, but also because of the access I had as a young person in New York to see theater and art in a way I had never been exposed to before. It was equally important that I was able to surround myself with more queer people and learn the history of my community through them.”
After graduation, Flaherty took on roles in the indie and off-Broadway theater scene. At age 27, he performed in the play Pirira, which got him recognized by a big agency.
“The play at that point had ended its run, and basically the agent said something to the effect of, “You gotta get yourself on film, if you do a play, and I don’t see it, it’s like it never happened,” recalled Flaherty.
“I had been trying unsuccessfully to break into film, but casting directors would always tell me they weren’t sure where I fit. I wasn’t flamboyant enough for the trope gay roles in comedies, but I was too noticeably gay to play straight roles, and I didn’t have a big enough name to go up for the dramatic gay roles that were typically getting offered to more famous straight actors,” he explained.
“At that time, young writer/director/actors were becoming popular doing web-series, so I created my first short series Undetectable (2017), and that was really what set me on this path today. I can’t say I have an inspiration for the roles I write and play, per se. I really love lifting the veil of how we see gay men and queer people, and so I try to write about people who we don’t often shine the spotlight on.”
Flaherty won two Indie Series awards for Undetectable, including best lead actor in a drama and best writing in a drama. The series centers around the character, Matthew, whose recent HIV diagnosis forces him to redefine his life.
In 2020, Flaherty left New York for Provincetown, MA, where he currently resides, and where some of the scenes of Chrissy Judy were shot.
Although Flaherty had secured investment funds before beginning production on Chrissy Judy, a large investor was lost due to the pandemic leaving Flaherty with the small budget of only $20,000.
Flaherty’s brother, Brendan, who worked as cinematographer on the film, offered wise advice to not wait until everything is perfect, but make the film with the resources at hand.
Flaherty explained how the small budget challenge was also the greatest gift to the film.
“Having such a limited budget put all the work on my shoulders. I wrote, directed and acted in the film, yes, but I also produced and edited the film and THAT was the hard part.”
“Having someone like a producer or an assistant director could have made the whole process a lot less stressful. This was, however, a bit of a blessing.”
“Because there was no one to rely on, my vision for the film was completely undiluted. At no point did I have someone stepping in telling me I couldn’t do something, so I really got to tell the story exactly the way I wanted to tell it.”
“My brother wore many hats too, as cinematographer and about a dozen other roles in the crew.”
Flaherty described what it was like working on the project with a sibling.
“We work very similarly and very well together. There’s a lot of trust between us, and we’re both problem solvers, so even when something catastrophic happened on set, we were able to find a way to work around the issue and often times use obstacles in our favor. It’s as much his film as it is mine.”
The viewer first notices that the film is shot in black and white, giving it a timeless, artsy quality. Without the color contrast of the multiple settings—cities, intimate clubs, country homes, and the seaside—the boldness of the characters becomes even more arresting, more dazzling.
“I always knew I wanted to shoot the film in black and white. First, I think there’s something inherently romantic about black and white films that I wanted to juxtapose with this story of friendship. Also, I think there’s something timeless about black and white films, and that was a big goal of mine in creating Chrissy Judy.”
Although IBMD classifies Flaherty’s new film Chrissy Judy as a comedy, the film does not conveniently fit into a labeled box.
Although there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and witty dialogue, the film is ultimately the bittersweet account of the breaking up of an emotional, yet platonic friendship.
Chrissy and Judy are two friends who grow apart when one moves away to live with his romantic partner in a neighboring city. Distance not only strains the close friendship, but breaks up their creative performance duo. The friend left behind embarks on his own journey of self-discovery that is sometimes outlandish and droll, sometimes heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking. Ultimately, it is a voyage of evolution and growth that is a treat to witness.
Although Chrissy Judy fits the niche category of a queer film, it appeals to broader audiences in the sense of monogamous friendship, to which anyone can relate, regardless of sexuality. Flaherty elaborates.
“The simple fact is, no one asks queer people if they can relate to Superman or Pretty Woman. We have been watching non-queer stories for decades and are able to relate to the human stories being told. Chrissy Judy is about two drag queens whose friendship is falling apart, so yes, I can see how that sounds pretty gay. But at its core, it’s a story about two friends who are growing apart. And I think everyone at some point, everyone in their life, has experienced that and can relate to it.”
While most previous films centered on gay characters have highlighted romance, Chrissy Judy does not, and that make the story more unique, and somehow, more profound to the viewer. Flaherty explains why.
“Culturally we place more value on romantic partnership than we do on friendships, but both are equally important and necessary to living a fulfilling life.”
“Removing the element of romance allows them to be more authentic because they’re not saddled with the societal pressures of what it means to be someone’s romantic partner. Both Chrissy and Judy keep a sense of autonomy while being present in each other’s lives.”
In addition to the main story of an evolving relationship, there’s an important subplot that weaves the creative expression of drag performance into Judy’s growth and self-discovery.
Flaherty stars as the main character, Judy, whose drag shows become solo after his best friend Chrissy, played by Wyatt Fenner, moves away. Although the shows first continue along the campy and comical lines of the Chrissy-Judy duo, Flaherty explained that the performances mirrored Judy’s personal evolution by becoming more mature.
“I think as most people enter their thirties, priorities shift, and people let go of big dreams in order to pursue more stable paths. Our goals change, but also our pursuit of the new goals come with this awareness that we might fail at achieving those too,” he began.
“… that’s what Judy is dealing with, this profound awareness that life offers no guarantees, and you can never really know if you’re on the ‘right’ path.”
“The unique thing about drag is that the performer is putting on a costume and makeup to make them unrecognizable (typically) so they can perform as a character. In doing this, failure is less stigmatizing, because you can step out of the gown and take off the wig and makeup and try again later,” explained Flaherty.
I never did drag before writing Chrissy Judy…and I have to say, there’s something very liberating about performing in front of a crowd behind the mask of playing a character. I don’t consider myself a singer, but singing in drag is less nerve-wracking for some reason and enabled me to get better at my craft.”
“If you say something dumb, or tell a joke that doesn’t land, that can be a ‘character choice,’ so it’s not you the performer who bombed, it was that drag queen on stage. And with that freedom from failure also comes a freedom to express your thoughts and desires and live out your ‘fantasy,’ as drag performers call it,” he concluded.
Flaherty chose mainly classic standards, rather than contemporary songs, for the soundtrack of Chrissy Judy.
“I love the idea of Judy wanting to be a torch singer in this world of high-kicking dancers. I think it adds to the timelessness of the film and really shows Judy’s love of the craft of drag as was performed by people who originated the art form.”
Brendan currently resides in New York City, but Flaherty’s parents, David and Lorraine, still live in Swedesboro and his sister, Katharine, lives in Woolwich. Flaherty recalls how his parents’ interests and talents helped mold his own.
“My dad is a builder and doer and likes to work with his hands. We were always building things with him, and he always encouraged my brother and I when we wanted to use the family camcorder to make a movie with our Legos or puppets,” he began.
“My mother was an opera singer, and her father was a jazz pianist, so that’s had a huge impact on my artistic sensibilities and desire to be a performer. My mom loved old movies and made sure we were exposed to as much theater as possible.”
“I always felt grateful that, by middle school, there were year-round opportunities to perform, whether in a play or musical or summer theater. Marianne Eitel (who passed in 2005) was the theater teacher then, and she really exposed me to the type of theater work I still love today.”
Flaherty’s mother, Lorraine, recalls the influence of Mrs. Eitel at Kingsway. “She was very dedicated to her students and gave them a lot of artistic liberty,” she said.
“I remember when Todd and a few other theater students approached Mrs. Eitel about doing a very sophisticated Neil Simon comedy called Rumors. Although she was doubtful, they convinced her that they could do it, and what a great job they did,” she continued.
Flaherty is currently writing his next feature, which he plans to film in or around Swedesboro. He also recently acted in a film with Marisa Tomei, Bill Irwin, Marco Pigosi, and Mya Taylor that should be released within the next year.
“And beyond that I’m constantly looking for ways to stay creative,” he concluded.
Chrissy Judy will be in select U.S. theaters in March and available to purchase on all video-on-demand platforms on April 4.
To view the trailer, visit https://www.chrissyjudyfilm.com
By Colleen Woods-Esposito