Jennette McCurdy Makes Directorial Debut With Short Film

Jennette McCurdy-Publicity Still 3- H 2018
Marie Rodriguez

"Kenny" offers up a darkly comic twist on the well-trod grief genre.

Jennette McCurdy doesn’t like melodrama. It’s everywhere, she says, especially social media, where, as if in protest, the actress maintains a decidedly unsentimental Instagram feed.

It’s also why, after her mother died of cancer in 2013, McCurdy set herself the task of finding her own way of coping with the flood of grief that ensued.

The result is her directorial debut, “Kenny," a short film that premieres on Monday on the YouTube channel Short of the Week, which features short films on a range of topics — survival, conspiracy, transformation — from auteurs as far away as Afghanistan and Latvia. The films often go on to big festivals like Sundance, Toronto and Tribeca. 

“Kenny” offers up a darkly comic twist on the well-trod grief genre, which McCurdy says she studied closely before attempting to subvert it with her own unique take. (She also penned the script.) To bone up, she watched films like Sunshine Cleaning, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and What Dreams May Come.

All are wonderful, heartfelt films, she says, but, ultimately, too earnest.

“Everything I watched handled death with a real reverence,” she says, “It’s a sobering thing, of course, the loss of someone close to you. But I thought they lacked a note of humor and some of the nuance to independence that I personally felt.”

McCurdy says she struggles constantly with the fine line between honoring people’s attempts to handle sensitive topics like sexual assault or suicide and bemoaning the easy narratives that often result.

“Our ideas get reinforced if they’re weepy or saccharine,” says the actress, who started acting at age 6 and is best known for her career as a star of several Nickelodeon shows under the direction of now-departed producer Dan Schneider. McCurdy declined to discuss Schneider, who parted ways with the network in March after nearly a quarter century running some of the most popular shows on Nick.

Now, she says, she prefers the unvarnished version of reality. "Anytime something becomes more romantic, more glorified of a thing than it needs to be, it’s not honest,” she says.

She was even nervous about highlighting the all-female crew on “Kenny.”

“I thought that was going to be a narrative that’d be an easy one to go with,” she says, “without considering that these women just happen to be the best ones for the job.”

McCurdy says the death of her mother, with whom she shared an extremely close relationship (perhaps too close), was as liberating as it was devastating. Losing the person who had been “the backbone” of her identity, McCurdy, then just 21, was forced into a reckoning of sorts.

“I wanted to show that with grief and loss, there can also come relief. Even if you lose somebody who was really instrumental in defining you, you can redefine yourself, maybe for better, after they’re gone. Once she was gone, it felt like peeling back my identity, realizing who I was beyond the context of her.”

The conflicted tone and tragicomic back-and-forth of the characters in her film bring the point home. “Kenny” features David Barton Harris in the lead as a depressed, lonely son caring for his ailing mother. Unexpected events bring the extended family, which includes Tony Cavalero (starring in Danny McBride’s upcoming HBO comedy series, and then as Ozzy Osbourne in an upcoming Netflix film), Carrie Lazar (The Magnificent Seven, The Big Short) and Chris Ellis (The Dark Knight Rises), together for an uncomfortable reunion.

Now long out of Nickelodeon’s orbit, McCurdy says writing and directing are her future. “I never got the chance to be cast in a project I was proud to be part of,” she says. “Now I have a better chance of making things I’m proud of than getting cast in things I’m proud of.”