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Once a Tampa ‘nerd,’ she made a movie about a formula that makes kids popular

“Popular Theory,” written and directed by Ali Scher, hits theaters on Friday.
 
Writer director Ali Scher works with actress Sophia Reid-Gantzert on the set of "Popular Theory."
Writer director Ali Scher works with actress Sophia Reid-Gantzert on the set of "Popular Theory." [ Courtesy of Donna Permell ]
Published Feb. 7|Updated Feb. 8

TAMPA — Growing up in Tampa, Ali Scher wanted to be one of the popular kids. She was not.

“I was a little bit different and weird,” said Scher, a 2003 graduate of Plant High School. “I was made fun of.”

As an adult, Scher realized she didn’t need to be popular.

“You don’t need a ton of friends,” she said. “You just need somebody. That’s one of those lessons that’s really hard to understand as a kid, but as you get older it sinks in.”

Now a writer and director living in Los Angeles, Scher hopes her new movie helps get that message to children.

Starring Cheryl Hines of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fame, Scher’s “Popular Theory” hits theaters on Feb. 9. On Feb. 11, Scher will attend the 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. screenings at Tampa’s AMC Veterans and host a question-and-answer session after each.

The film, shot in Atlanta in 2022 and also featuring St. Petersburg actor Eugenie Bondurant, tells the story of two high school outcasts who create a chemical formula that, when ingested through chewing gum, releases a pheromone that makes people popular.

Scher said that kind of quick fix would have been a dream come true when she was growing up. “All I wanted was for people to like me and to feel included, a part of something.”

Scher described her childhood self as a “mega nerd” lost in Shakespearean sonnets, books, poetry and theater. Once at Wilson Middle School in Tampa, she sat at a cafeteria table with one of the popular kids.

“She yelled at me for sitting there, in front of the entire cafeteria,” Scher said. “It’s one of those memories that sticks with you because it’s so embarrassing.”

But, while at Smith College in Massachusetts, Scher realized that being different was OK.

“I found friends who loved who I was,” she said.

Scher’s big filmmaking break came when she was hired to direct “Jessica Darling’s It List.” Released in 2016 and still available on Netflix, the movie is about a middle schooler whose big sister provides her with a checklist for navigating the popularity hierarchy.

It was a fun story that she could relate to, Scher said, but it was not her story.

“I didn’t write it,” said Scher, who had already finished the script for “Popular Theory” at that time. “I had been trying to get it made for at least 11 years” while working on other projects.

Writer and director Ali Scher on the set of her movie "Popular Theory."
Writer and director Ali Scher on the set of her movie "Popular Theory." [ Courtesy of Ali Scher ]

In 2019, “The Blair Witch Project” director Dan Myrick announced that he would produce the movie and that it would be made in Tampa.

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“But that fell through because of the pandemic,” Scher said. “Then I woke up in 2022 and said to myself, ‘I’m going to make it this year and nothing is going to stop me.’

“I went out and I found investors and we just kind of bullheaded forward.”

Now that the movie is complete, Scher looks forward to it having a positive impact on children.

“I hope that they have a good time first and foremost,” she said. “And I hope that they come away feeling a little better about the connections that they have in their lives, that they come away with a little bit more of an understanding about the idea that it isn’t about the quantity of friendships that you have in the world, it’s about the quality.”

If you go

Writer and director Ali Scher will attend screenings of “Popular Theory” at 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Feb. 11, at AMC Veterans, 9302 Anderson Road, Tampa. After each showing, she will take questions from the audience. Tickets can be purchased at amctheatres.com.