"I'm Lindon Warren -- that's Lindon with an 'I,' like Liza with a 'Z.'"
That's how the young subject of "Finding Judy," a new short film by actor-director Gary Riotto, describes himself -- but judging by the impression he has already made on festival audiences nationwide, it's uncertain just how much longer Warren will still need an introduction.
As Riotto's film reveals, the Chicago-born Warren has a truly astonishing knack for channeling Judy Garland. Remarkably, the 20-year-old is able to capture the essence of Garland as both the fresh-faced "Wizard of Oz" ingenue and the smoky-voiced diva of her twilight years. True, it's a skill that countless drag queens have sought to hone for generations, but as Riotto explains, Warren's impression (unlike many celebrity impersonators before him) of his legendary idol is neither comic nor camp.
"He's far enough removed generationally from Judy so he didn't really know who she was, and yet to this day, he cannot articulate why he is drawn to her or what she means to him," Riotto, a lifelong Garland fan who first encountered Warren's eerily spot-on rendition of "Over the Rainbow" on YouTube, says. "I see Lindon as someone who is able to channel Judy's talent and spirit, but is not really 'playing her,' in a sense."
The eight-minute, surprisingly poignant new film comprises clips of Warren's teenage performances along with more recent footage of him tracking down Garland's handprints in the courtyard of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. In high school, Warren says his newfound talent served another purpose, too, helping to combat the bullies who taunted him mercilessly in the classroom. "They wouldn't be laughing at me; they'd be laughing with me," he says.
No one on the festival circuit seems to be laughing at "Finding Judy," as Riotto's film nabbed the Audience Award for Best Short Film at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival following a well-received world premiere at the Boston LGBT Film Festival and subsequent engagements in New York, Seattle and San Diego, among other cities. Riotto now hopes the film will soon head overseas as well, as festivals in London, Berlin and even Singapore have already expressed interest.
But the director is taking those accolades in stride, saying that his ultimate goal for "Finding Judy" is for the film serve as an anti-bullying educational tool. "I was just blown away by the fact that there was this young man who was being true to himself, he was embracing his special talent and sharing with all the world," he explains. "I'm pretty certain that one way to put an end to bullying is to embrace our young people and all their uniqueness, and to celebrate it."
Still can't get enough Judy Garland? Check out 20 of her most legendary performances below: