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Director Eric Stoltz, Sarasota Film Festival president Mark Famiglio, and producer Sandy Stern before the Sarasota Opera House screening of Class Rank.

The 20th annual Sarasota Film Festival kicked off Friday night with a low-key charmer of a film—Class Rank—and with both its director, Eric Stoltz, and its producer, Sandy Stern, in attendance.

The opening night film has for its main stars two relative unknowns—Skyler Gisondo and Olivia Holt—playing smart, hard-working, small-town New Jersey teens, Bernard and Veronica, with another thing in common: Neither really has friends. They’re too busy learning Chinese from a pen pal love interest (in his case) and planning for a future as a Supreme Court justice (in hers).

But when driven Veronica finds out that she’s ranked only No. 2 in her class, threatening her acceptance at Yale, she decides to fight city hall—or, more accurately, the local school board—by acting as Bernard’s campaign manager to replace one of the incumbent board members and, she hopes, eliminate the issue of class rankings once and for all.

It may not sound like much of a storyline, but in director Stoltz’s hands (and with a cast that also includes veterans Bruce Dern as Bernard’s grandfather, Kristin Chenoweth as Veronica’s mother, and Kathleen Chalfant as the local newspaper’s editor), Class Rank, scripted by Benjamin August, offers a lot of sweet, funny and quirky moments along the way.

Stoltz and Stern answered questions from the audience at the Sarasota Opera House after the movie screening, with Stoltz revealing that he chose every bit of the music for the film, including the opening credit rendition of Doris Day singing “Perhaps.” “She read the script and liked it, so she let us have it for very little money,” he said. He also told the audience that as much as 65 percent of Dern’s dialogue was improvised. “He strode onto the set like a lion in winter,” Stoltz said, “a little intimidating. But he would try anything you asked him to.”

Class Rank is set for limited release starting May 11.

Before the film, SFF staffers also announced the beginning of the 20 Hour Film Contest, with filmmaking teams coming onstage to receive envelopes containing their theme. Each was told the element that must be in all of the five-minute films: sunblock. Participants have just 20 hours to shoot, 20 hours to edit, and the finished films will be shown and a winner selected at 10 a.m. Sunday, April 22, at Regal Cinema’s Hollywood 11. Sounds like a challenge.

For more information about this year's festival, visit sarasotafilmfestival.com.

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