Naperville native's film about struggles with anxiety making Hollywood premiere

Naperville native Kelsey Sante has lived the experience in her short film, “Reach,” for years.

She endured panic attacks while a student at Neuqua Valley High School and knows the intense feeling of dread that comes with each spiral into anxiety.

She pushed through long days directing and editing the film, and hopes it will make an anxiety experience come to life so those who are unfamiliar gain understanding, and those who suffer know they're not alone.

Sante, a 23-year-old junior director working for a film studio in Los Angeles, will get to see her 6-minute spot on one of the biggest and brightest of all screens — the celebrated TCL Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood.

“Reach” debuts June 7 during the Dances with Films festival, which showcases the work of independent, up-and-coming filmmakers such as Sante and fellow Columbia College Chicago graduate Ryan Kerr, who served as cinematographer, composer and editor for the film.

Sante's mother, Trish Robb, is excited to travel to Los Angeles for the premiere and see her daughter's journey with anxiety reach a point of success on the screen. Robb said she's proud of her daughter's determination, talent and confrontation of the panic that used to impede her daily life.

“She had more problems in late high school and maybe the first year of college before she really understood what it was,” Robb said about her daughter's anxiety, which Sante has learned to manage. “She probably learned more about that through the making of this film.”

“Reach” was Sante's senior thesis at Columbia and a first step into a film career she hopes will help people with mental health conditions find camaraderie and recovery. She created the film to be “a really short, concise experience that would take you through what's happening on the inside” during an anxiety attack.

The film's main character, Hannah, becomes entrapped by anxiety when her friends step away from her at a party. She makes her way to a bathroom, where symbolic images, like cracking skin and a swimmer struggling underwater, take over the narrative.

One of these scenes transports viewers to an abandoned church in Gary, Indiana, where Hannah runs her fingers over a mirror-like mosaic of shiny, glass in a shot meant to portray self-harm — without overtly showing it.

“She's looking at herself through this warped, shattered glass and not really seeing herself clearly,” Sante said. “As she's dealing with that and touching that, that is what ultimately causes her pain and cuts her.”

The depiction of an anxiety attack got high marks from North Central College associate professor of psychology Leila Azarbad, who said the film could be a meaningful teaching tool to explain mental distress.

“It was an incredibly powerful visual representation of some of the things that can happen in the mind and body of someone who's going through a panic attack or depression,” Azarbad said. “The visual metaphors that she used were intense and did a good job of showing the public how much someone can really suffer from these symptoms.”

But Azarbad and Mudita Rastogi, a professor of clinical psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology in Schaumburg, warn not all panic attacks look or feel the same. Rastogi says the attack shown in “Reach” is in several ways “much more complex than the average situation.”

Not every person who has panic attacks also has suicidal thoughts, as the film indicates Hannah does by showing her at the edge of a rooftop. After treatment and education, some anxiety sufferers can recognize their triggers sooner to avoid a full-scale attack.

In the end, Hannah uses the help of a friend, whose presence quells her panic.

“There is a great sense of soothing in a relationship,” Rastogi said. “I like that message.”

After years of therapy and more than a year spent making “Reach,” Sante says she's doing well in her recovery from the time when panic attacks would overcome her. At Duck Pond Films, where she works as a junior director, she's developing a comedy series about everyday life with depression.

“I'm constantly talking to people about my own experiences,” Sante said. “Keeping that conversation about mental health open is a form of therapy.”

Kelsey Sante, a graduate of Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville and Columbia College Chicago, will premiere her short film about anxiety called "Reach" on June 7, at the Dances with Films festival in California. Courtesy of Kelsey Sante
One visually metaphoric scene in the short film "Reach" shows main character Hannah, portrayed by Abigail Phelps, underwater to convey how anxiety can make sufferers feel like they're struggling for air. Courtesy of Abbi Sims
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