Kendall Goldberg scouted nearly 40 bowling alleys before finding one to serve as the backdrop in her feature “When Jeff Tried to Save the World.” Most were in Los Angeles, where “they were all too big, too fancy, too expensive,” she says.
While back in Munster, Indiana, during a winter break from Chapman University in California, she decided to scout a few more alleys and happened upon Lan-Oak Lanes in Lansing. The place gives off an early ‘90s vibe and would never find itself in River North. Hallways are lined with plastic faux wood paneling. Neon signs are liberally strewn throughout the inside, one simply reading, “Hot Dog.” And the bowling equipment itself remains rudimentary — rusted metal ball machines, scoring software resembling MS-DOS.
Goldberg immediately took to the space. “It had that hometown cozy feeling; it felt cozy and worn in,” she says. “It turns out that bowling alley was almost identical to concept art I had drawn three years prior.”
Goldberg, 23, took over the alley and shot a proof-of-concept short film titled “When Jeff Tried to Save the World” in 2017. She recently fleshed out a feature-length version, which is touring the festival circuit and has earned accolades for Goldberg and star Jon Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite,” “Blades of Glory”). Goldberg will be returning to the area for screenings at the Music Box on Dec. 5 and 6, featuring her and Heder in postshow Q&A’s.
The film kicks off with a one-two punch. The titular Jeff (Heder), a man in his 20s who works at a bowling alley named Winky’s World, hasn’t shared news of his job with his family; they expected him to put his engineering degree to use. Meanwhile the alley owner Carl (Jim O’Heir) makes a decision to sell the business, which coincides with a surprise visit from Jeff’s sister, who now knows the true nature of Jeff’s career. Jeff finds himself simultaneously justifying his choice of occupation as he concocts a plan to save Winky’s World.
Goldberg’s career kicked off in the Chicago area. When she was young, her family picked up from Homewood-Flossmoor and hopped across the border to Munster. “I remember when I learned how to speed up and slow down my voice [on screen],” she says. “I thought it was the funniest thing ever.” Later she set up a YouTube channel where she talked about her day. Her parents made her take it down.
“There’s really not a time where I can look back and say I didn’t love this,” she says. “I was coming home from school not doing homework and running around with friends making ‘stunt films’ — riding bikes in circles.”
Most of the cast members from the “Jeff” short carried over to the feature, one of whom was O’Heir, whose credits include “Parks and Recreation” and “The Bold and the Beautiful,” for which he won a Daytime Emmy. But perhaps his true star power in “Jeff” stems from the fact that he bowled in a league at Lan-Oak Lanes when he was a kid.
Heder praises the Midwest hospitality of the Lansing community. “Dale, a small-town guy who owns the alley, let us use it for free,” Heder says. “He shut down the alley. That sense of hospitality made us feel special.”
Goldberg planted a few Easter eggs in the film for watchful Chicagoans to discover. Jeff stocks Revolution and Three Floyds beer, and the L tracks and skyline are visible from his apartment. Plus, local band J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound plays a party at Winky’s World.
She and the crew unwittingly participated in a local, annual tradition. “On our third day of filming, we were shooting day for night; we covered the windows with tarps and curtains,” she says. “We didn’t realize it was they day they were practicing for the Air and Water Show. I have this footage: We’re going for a take, then all of a sudden it sounds like a train or plane came straight for the building. Nobody knows what’s going on. For a good 10 minutes we didn’t continue shooting; our hearts were stammering.”
Shoulda kept bowling.
Steve Heisler is a local freelance writer.