By Janee Law
Marisa Vitali’s story isn’t just about the struggles of drug addiction. It’s about triumph, and perseverance to overcome her greatest challenge in life, drug addiction.
The Northport native is sharing her story through “Grace,” a short film inspired by her first year clean from heroin addiction.
“With the film, I really wanted to start a conversation about recovery, and bridge the gap between addicts and non-addicts,” Vitali, who wrote, produced and stars in the film, said. “Since we’ve been screening it, people have come together to share their own experiences with addiction -- sometimes for the first time, and getting comfortable with that.”
Vitali portrays the film’s main character, Janice, a waitress at the Depot Diner who is faced with the challenge of gaining custody of her daughter, Grace, while trying to survive her first year clean.
“My first year clean was probably one of the hardest and most challenging times in my life,” Vitali said. “It’s the first time you’re faced with all these feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, resentment, anger, pain and you don’t have a drink or a drug to hide behind so you have to face all those things and not use.”
The film was released in May 2015. Vitali has partnered with the Northport-East Northport Drug and Alcohol Task Force to screen “Grace” at the John W. Engeman Theater on Tuesday at 7 p.m. All proceeds from ticket sales, raffles and silent auctions will benefit nonprofit community agency Youth Directions and Alternatives.
The task force was instrumental in helping Vitali film “Grace” in Northport village three years ago, she said.
Vitali said the film's important message is: “We do recover. It’s not always about the problem. If we can all be a little more compassionate around the nature of addiction and we can talk about a solution as opposed to problem, there won’t be as much of a problem.”
Growing up, Vitali attended Northport High School around the time her battle with addiction began. She requested that her age and year of graduation not be published.
For Vitali, her addiction started as a progression. She said her first sip of alcohol came in junior high school, eventually growing older and growing into the party scene. She started using drugs as she got more and more ingrained in that scene, she said.
“The ‘party’ ended as I eventually progressed to heroin during my last year of college,” Vitali said. “Then your world slowly becomes smaller and smaller, and you end up using to live and living to use.
She added, “It becomes a very narrow existence.”
Vitali said she felt “hopeless,” “delusional,” and didn’t think getting clean was even a possibility.
However, she eventually began her journey toward becoming clean, spending three months in rehab, and then a year in an outpatient program in Huntington Station.
Now clean for nearly 15 years, Vitali is sharing her story through “Grace.”
The film has earned several awards, including a win for Vitali as “Best Actress in A Short Film” at this year’s Queens World Film Festival. Other awards came in 2015, including best drama at the Cape Fear Independent Film Festival; the audience award for best short film at the Long Island International Film Expo; and the raising awareness award at the Golden Door International Film Festival.
Vitali is primarily an actress, graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a bachelor’s degree in drama. She said her acting teacher inspired her to start writing the script for “Grace” after motivating students to be proactive and tell their own stories.
Vitali wrote the script the next day and began producing the film six months later.
Also cast in the 13-and-a-half-minute long film are Alysia Reiner, known for her role in “Orange is a New Black;” Zach Grenier, known for his role in “The Good Wife;” Chris Kerson, known for his role in “True Detective;” and Stephanie Brait, known for her role in “I Just Want My Pants Back.”
“Grace” was filmed, in part, at Tim’s Shipwreck Diner in Northport Village. Filming also took place in Manhattan.
On showing the film in her hometown, Vitali said she is “super excited.”
“I mean it’s really kind of a homecoming of sorts, to be able to come full circle and to screen in Northport,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be able to do that.”
Tickets for next week’s showing at Engeman Theater are available for $10-$30 at the box office, or from Engemantheater.com. VIP tickets ($30) include a meet-and-greet with Vitali and food supplied by Tim’s.
Vitali is also in the process of putting together a lesson plan for the film so it could be distributed to health curriculums and potentially used as a teaching tool to speak to the nature of addiction and recovery.
“I feel like I’m just a vehicle in this, it’s not about me,” Vitali said. “If I can share this message with as many people and if I can touch one person with this message then my job is done.”