Brendon Scholl wasn't anticipating telling their story on film.
Director Constantine Venetopoulos was merely someone whom their mom, opera singer Leslie Ann Lopez, had worked with on a project. However, the young visual artist's coming out as both trans and non-binary—a journey introduced to the world first by famous aunt Jennifer Lopez in a 2017 Instagram post—resonated with the openly gay filmmaker. And so, Constantine sprung an idea on them.
"It came to me kind of suddenly," Brendon told E! News of the fateful moment. "We were just sitting on the floor in my room, and he brought up the fact that he would [be interested in telling] my story and making a film. It was kind of like out of blue for me, though. I knew that he was a director and he made films, but it didn't really connect in my mind that he would want to tell my story."
While inviting the whole world into something as personal as one's own journey with their gender identity is a big undertaking, Brendon said the decision was a rather easy one to make. "The big reason that I felt comfortable telling my story is because I knew that when I was just starting to discover who I was and figuring out myself, I would have wanted a story like mine that I could go and see," they said, "and that I could look back and be like, 'Other people have gone through this' and just kind of have that support, like I'm not alone in what's going on."
Born of that decision was Draw With Me, a stirring documentary short that paints an intimate portrait of Brendon and their family. The 24-minute film, produced by Ithaka Films in partnership with The Trevor Project, pulls no punches in detailing a coming-out journey that challenged the entire family and led Brendon to suicidal ideation before their art and the growing support of their household saved them, setting them down a path of advocacy.
Reliving the totality of their story on camera at such a young age—they were only 16 when the film was shot—wasn't always the easiest. "There were definitely moments where I had to kind of like center myself before speaking," Brendon said. "Because, obviously, it talked about pretty dark subject matter. Constantine helped create this space [where] it was perfectly okay for me to say, 'Hey, I need a minute to just center myself and...deal with things.'"
Having journalist aunt Lynda Lopez there to guide the conversation certainly helped as well. "I was really lucky in that the person I was talking to was my aunt," Brendon explained. "So, it's already somebody that I knew and I was comfortable with. I didn't have to worry about talking about super personal stuff with a stranger."
Featuring an introduction from JLo herself in support of her nibling (a gender-neutral term used to describe a sibling's child), the film has done the festival circuit, screened at several high schools and was even the subject of the first-ever panel at the United Nations on Transgender Health. And now it's an official Oscar entry for Documentary Short Subject. But for Brendon, seeing themselves on screen remains surreal.
"I felt like, oh, this is the kind of thing that happened to 'important people' and I'm just a kid from the suburbs," they said. "Seeing myself and my story on an official screen and in an official capacity, it was kind of a sense of 'there's no way that this is real,' but it is—and I'm really glad that it is. But there's still kind of that part of me that's like, 'No, this isn't real. There's no way.'"
A major aspect of the film is how Brendon leaned on their art as they endeavored to understand themselves, often using ghost imagery as a stand-in for themselves. "Art gave me this ability to not say, but just show how I was feeling and show what was going on for me," they said. "I didn't have to worry about finding the right words and, like, 'Does this word have the right connotation? Is this the right message I'm trying to get across?' I could just show people."
As for how their art has evolved since then, Brendon, who's currently a sophomore in college, revealed that they're actually drawing less these days. "When I was struggling, I always had my sketchbook and I always had something to draw and I always had something that needed to be released. And now I found that I don't need that outlet as much," they said. "I guess I still use it when I'm still kind of struggling to process things, I'll pull out my paints in my sketchbook and pencil and just go to town. But I found that I don't need to rely on it as much as I used to."
While the very personal journey has brought Brendon closer to their family, there's no denying that the public support of aunt Jennifer set something much larger into motion. And that's OK with them. "People who I don't even know, I've never met, have all this knowledge about me," Brendon said. "And people who I feel, particularly with my aunt, might not have had exposure to trans people and to the struggles of trans people are getting exposure to it and are starting to ask questions that they probably wouldn't even think of beforehand. The first step to any progress is asking questions in my mind. So, to have someone with as much reach as she does talk about it, I think, is a huge step."
After exploring how Brendon's adolescent existence became a political act, the film's coda movingly allows for them to offer a message to their younger self. When asked what message they might have for all the other kids out there whose lives have become similarly politicized, they had this to offer: "I'd say that they don't owe anything to anybody. That the only person that they need to worry about living up to is themselves and being true to themselves, and try not to worry as much about what other people will think because there's always going to be people who have something to say. What really matters is whether you are saying what you need to say."
As for the message Brendon hopes those who might never understand their experience take away from the film, it's really quite simple.
"I hope that they understand that we're all just people, and we're all just striving to be as happy as we can be," they said. "And that regardless of whatever surface differences we have, we all have the same basic needs: I want to be happy, I want to feel like I belong and I want to feel safe."
For an exclusive look at Draw With Me, be sure to check out the video above. The complete film is available to rent on Vimeo.