Torrey Pines High School sophomore Ashton Tu was looking for a subject for a documentary film and couldn’t think of a better one than her classmate, Jake Froman.
She admired Jake’s relentlessly positive attitude and his patience and endurance through his daily life, not letting cerebral palsy hold him back.
“Jake is so happy, and that’s really an inspiration,” Ashton said.
With her film, Ashton wanted to shine a new light on people with disabilities and help Jake express himself and make his mark. The film may be short, but the impact is long — Jake’s big smile lights up the screen.
“Jake literally gets up every day smiling,” says Jake’s mom, Jen, in the documentary. “One of his routine sayings is, ‘I’m so excited.’ Even if the reason is just that tomorrow is Thursday.”
Ashton’s documentary on Jake, “Just Like You,” was completed this summer as part of Pacific Arts Movement’s Reel Voices program, a 12-week summer internship to help students learn about film production and how to become socially conscious storytellers.
Ashton, like all 10 students in the program, received a $500 scholarship for her work.
The film was screened at the San Diego Asian Film Festival this month and was recently named the Best Documentary Film in the Youth On! Film Festival in Madison, Wis.
The film has also been shown in several Torrey Pines classes.
“The response has been almost overwhelming,” said Jen. “The comments have been really pretty remarkable.”
The Fromans knew Jake had a brain injury at the time of his birth, but they didn’t receive the diagnosis of cerebral palsy until he was 4 months old.
As seen in footage in Ashton’s film, Jake has undergone all kinds of different therapies to learn to do things like swim and walk on his own, which he can do now with some help.
“He really keeps in shape and is always working on his walking,” Jen said, noting he aims to start working with a trainer to build some muscle.
In the film, Jake’s father, Jim, said his son is always happy and smiling through his therapies.
“He doesn’t complain, he keeps his head down, he works hard,” Jim said.
Ashton first met Jake when they were eighth-graders at Carmel Valley Middle School.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this kid is really cool,’” Ashton said.
The pair had a freshman English class together at Torrey Pines, which gave Ashton another opportunity to interact with Jake.
“She’s nice,” Jake said.
In the film, teacher Brenda Robinette talks about how sometimes students are intimidated to speak with Jake, because when he speaks, it’s a sound they’re not used to. However, many students, like Ashton, are affected by having him in class.
“He has that way to bring people back to what’s human about them,” Robinette said in the film. “I definitely see him working with people, inspiring people.”
To ask permission to work with Jake, Ashton contacted the Fromans in April.
Jen said Ashton wrote her a “beautiful” note telling her why she wanted to do a film about her son, and she was more than comfortable in letting Ashton follow her family.
“I believe Jake is a hero who deserves more credibility for his hard work, and many will find his story touching,” Ashton wrote. “I specifically want to highlight Jake from any other because he is an extraordinary example of a person with a great attitude who does not let his disabilities limit or define him.”
As for Jake, he was more than willing to have a film made about him and not nervous at all about being its star.
“Jake told me he wants her to do a full-length movie now,” Jen said with a laugh.
Ashton filmed a summer’s worth of activities, tagging along on bowling trips, filming the family having fun in the pool, going out for frozen yogurt, sitting down for meals and doing Jake’s favorite new activity: running races with Team Hoyt, a nonprofit that assists families in inclusion in sports.
The Pathman family of Carmel Valley introduced the Fromans to Team Hoyt. Jim and Lisa Pathman compete in triathlons and other endurance events with their 16-year-old twins Shane and Riley, who also have cerebral palsy.
In July, Ashton accompanied Jake to the Bolt to the Q 5K to film him competing with his family. Ashton was there to see him off from the start line to the finish line, his crossing shown on the Jumbotron at Qualcomm Stadium.
While the family accompanies Jake on the 5K distances, he takes on the longer races with Team Hoyt volunteers. On Nov. 16, Jake did the Silver Strand Half Marathon. It was his sixth half marathon in the past 15 months — he has also completed the Carlsbad Half Marathon and San Diego Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon in 2014.
Ashton’s own perceptions of Jake changed during the documentary process.
“I was really surprised by the atmosphere of the family. Honestly, I thought it was going to be really sad,” Ashton said.
The family wasn’t sad at all — they keep a positive attitude about Jake and support him no matter what.
Ashton was also impressed when she found out that Jake takes all regular education classes at school — he has an aide who helps him take notes and proctors his tests, but he does all the work that other students do.
“The school has been incredible in giving him what he needs to be successful in regular education,” Jen said. “All of his teachers have been amazing. They recognize his intelligence and what he’s capable of.”
The hardest part of the filmmaking process for Ashton was taking the four hours of footage she had collected and editing it down for her short film. She spent hours listening to different music tracks to select just the right music. The aspiring filmmaker said she is very happy with the completed project.
The most poignant moment in her film is when she asks Jake what his biggest challenge is, and in his own way, he responds that it is talking to people.
But there are three words he says in the film that come across loud and clear, letting Jake express himself, make his mark and inspire whoever watches the film, beyond his classroom and his community:
“Never give up,” Jake says.
To watch “Just Like You,” visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_b2B34R6gOQ.