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From left: Tony Spiridakis, Greenport Mayor Kevin Stuessi, Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne and Tony Goldwyn

Stars of stage and screen descended on Greenport Friday evening for a special screening of the new film Ezra at the North Fork Arts Center.

The film follows a father, Max Bernal, played by Bobby Cannavale, trekking across the United States with his autistic son, Ezra, played by first-time actor William A. Fitzgerald, who is on the autism spectrum. To celebrate the film’s theatrical opening, Cannavale, his Ezra costar and real-life partner Rose Byrne and Tony Goldwyn, who directed and costars in the film, arrived in Greenport, where they bolstered a very special screening for its screenwriter and Greenport resident, Tony Spiridakis. The writer shared his film, a love he labored for more than a decade, with his friends and fellow villagers at his newly preserved and renovated North Fork Arts Center, which celebrated its grand opening last month.

Greenport Village shut down Front Street for the event, which drew a crowd hoping to catch not only Ezra, but a glimpse of popular stars walking the red carpet into the theater. Cannavale says he has spent more time on the South Fork compared to the North, but enjoys its “very chill vibe.”

“It’s very low key but naturally gorgeous,” he says. “What’s really beautiful is how close the bay and the sound are to each other, with this perfect strip going through it of fields and farms and wineries. It’s just gorgeous.”

After the Greenport Theatre shuttered during the pandemic, owner Josh Sapan listed the property on the market in January 2023. However, he promised Spiridakis that if the screenwriter could form a nonprofit and raise $1 million for reserve capital, he would donate the new organization the theater. After Spiridakis successfully galvanized his community, the two signed the closing documents last November, and Spiridakis dubbed the venue the “North Fork Arts Center at the Sapan Greenport Theatre.”

Friday marked the first first-run film screened at the venue in four years. Audiences can still catch “Ezra,” as well as “The Garfield Movie” and “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” at the Arts Center now. Following the film, Spiridakis, Goldwyn, Byrne and Cannavale sat onstage for a Q&A session, the type of which Spiridakis hopes to host frequently at his arts center.

“[The community] didn’t just speak, they roared,” Spiridakis said during a speech thanking those who made and make the North Fork Arts Center possible minutes before introducing the North Fork to “Ezra.” “The community came out in incredible numbers, and that’s why we’re here tonight.”

A personal story

When asked what first attracted him to Ezra, Cannavale, who served as an executive producer on the film, pointed to Spiridakis’ script. The Greenporter spent more than a decade writing about his experience raising his son Dimitri, who is on the autism spectrum.

“It was very personal; it was very moving,” Cannavale said during the panel. “It just resonated very deeply with me very quickly.”

“[Ezra is] not the kind of story that somebody just wakes up one day and writes as a fiction about raising an autistic son,” he added. “I think you have to have the lived experience of it. Lucky for us [Spiridakis] happens to be a great writer.”

To prepare for the role of a father raising a child with autism, Cannavale says he talked with Spiridakis, “every day” shortly after agreeing to the role.

Goldwyn, a friend of Spiridakis’ for more than 40 years, has seen many drafts of Ezra over the years, before he ever decided to sign on as the film’s director. Byrne pointed to the story as well as fond memories of working with Goldwyn on the legal thriller series “Damages” when asked what drew her to Ezra.

“It’s like a bit of a family affair,” Byrne said. “It’s a beautiful story, a personal story, and this is a great group to be a part of.”

A family affair

The audience meets separated couple Max, a standup comic living with his father, and Jenna, a real estate agent played by Byrne, at a moment of crisis, when a school administrator informs them of Ezra’s disruptive behavior. After the child sustains injuries due to an accident, a doctor demands Ezra take a new medication and attend a school for children with special needs. Worried this will do more harm for his son than good, Max kidnaps Ezra and embarks on a transformative journey to Los Angeles, where he is slated to perform standup on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

As the movie progresses, it becomes ever clear that its titular protagonist — who was non-verbal for many of his younger years and, in lieu of hugs or other common forms of physical contact, lets people rub his earlobe as he rubs theirs — is not the only character who struggles with communication. During the picture’s first act, Ezra’s father expresses his anger through an act of physical violence, and struggles to contain similar reactions later in the film. A dialogue between Ezra’s mother and his grandfather, Stan, portrayed by Robert De Niro, reveals that “Pop-Pop” as Ezra calls him, has never uttered the word “autism.” Various scenes depict how Stand and Max’s relationship suffers communication struggles akin to those between Max and Ezra. Standing on the rooftop of the The Menhaden just prior to screening his film, Spiridakis explained the film explores the universal struggles of family, not just those parents face when raising children on the autism spectrum.

“Parenting and families are an imperfect science and we should be forgiving,” he says. “I think we have to give each other a break, and know that we’re going to make mistakes. But as long as we love, we’re going to get through it.”