When Luis Hernandez was a high school freshman, he weighed 300 pounds and his father was mostly absent. "It was a powerful trigger and why I ate," said the 18-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Today, Hernandez is 50 pounds lighter and his father is more present in his life. He has also found his voice, in a fictional short film, "The Tale of Timmy Two Chins," a story loosely based on his own life, about a young man's struggle to find his self worth.
"Nobody sees a fat guy for who he is," says the film's protagonist, Timmy Sanchez, who is mercilessly teased at school. "He could be strong, powerful or tough, but they do not see that. No, all they see is fat and him carrying it."
The film is unique, because it was created in the nonprofit program, Scenarios USA, which brings together high school students and Hollywood filmmakers to make a social impact. His was directed by Nancy Savoca, whose film, "True Love," won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival.
The project won Hernandez, who grew up in economically depressed Red Hook, an April 24 airing of "The Tale of Timmy Two Chins" on television's Showtime network and a scholarship to University of Southern California next fall to study film.
But that's not all. Hernandez's film will be part of a larger educational curriculum that helps about 7,000 students from 220 schools in New York City, Cleveland and Chicago find their voices through storytelling.
"Our aim is not to make filmmakers," said Maura Minsky, executive director of Scenarios USA. "Our aim is to get young people to identify issues in their lives. ... Most of these kids have never even been asked what their story is. … This is a place for them to use their story to be heard."
The "carrot on the stick" is one student's story from each city is chosen by a national panel of judges to become a film. "Speechless," a film by Roxanne Lasker-Hall of Cleveland, about a teen who was sexually assaulted, will also air the same night on Showtime.
Founded in 1999, Scenarios USA uses writing and film to foster youth leadership, advocacy and self-expression with a focus on marginalized communities.
So far, its curriculum, Real Deal Films, has produced 24 films, pairing veteran filmmakers with students. Their storytelling revolves around a question – in 2013 it was, "What's the real deal in gender, power and relationships?"
Luis wrote a story about a smart, overweight teen, Timmy, who endures bullying at school. At night in his bedroom, he turns to the photo of his father who has recently died and then to a box of candy.
Through special effects, the posters on his wall come to life and chastise him for gaining weight: "Didn't you buy those jeans a week ago? Stop eating Twinkies, dude!" and "What would your Pop say?"
Timmy worships a girl who barely notices him, even as he ignores a girl who is a true friend. He disrespects his mother, who also feels the loss of her husband and over-zealously feeds her son.
As the story unfolds, Timmy has an epiphany, and realizes he can still "love my family and love beef jerky."
Obesity among adolescents aged 12 to 19 has increased more than three-fold, from 5 percent to 18 percent over the last three decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Boys show a slight lead over girls in average body mass index.
"In general it is thought that boys have a somewhat better body image than girls do, and that may be a generalization," said Keith Ayoob, associate professor in the department of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. "Boys suffer too. Psychologically, the type of teasing may be different but the actual issues may be very similar -- low self-esteem big-time depression, guilt and frustration."
Such was the case with both Hernandez and Armani Del Rio, the 19-year-old actor from Queens, N.Y., who plays Timmy.
"I was bulled in junior high school because of my weight," said Del Rio, who has since joined a gym. But the weight is only part of the problem. "It takes time to love yourself, and I work on it. It's not about muscle or money, but embracing your flaws."
The cast was surprised by the physical similarities between Hernandez and the actor. "I always say I was meant to be in this project," said Del Rio, who has appeared in an ad for the TV show "Jersey Shore."
Director Savoca and Del Rio worked for free last September to shoot the film on location in Brooklyn. Other cast members, all camera crews and production equipment were also donated.
Post-production was completed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, as Hernandez worked for several weeks without electricity at his house.
"It was a wonderful collaboration, which Scenarios USA fosters," said Savoca. "They really respond to the voice of the young writer -- and Luis had a story in his heart."
"It was a really nurturing and warm experience," said Savoca, 53, and the mother of three adult children. "He had a story to tell and he was very articulate. My job was to listen and make sure we were doing everything in keeping with his vision."
After she read his short story and prepared to make the screenplay, Savoca said she was surprised by Hernandez's vision.
"I asked Luis what this movie was about," she said. "I was expecting him to say that a kid's got a weight problem and people don't understand him and he feels isolated with no friends. … Instead, it was about appreciation and gratitude, and I thought 'Oh, my god, this is a special kid.' He was going to go deep into the story."
The film reflects his sense of humor. "Luis was very imaginative and funny," she said. "It wasn't heavy drama."
Savoca said she continues to stay in touch with Hernandez by text and email.
"I am excited to see him step into the world," she said. "It's an incredible adventure and a challenge. He comes from a tight-knit family and is going away to school. I see much growth for him and his family."
Hernandez said making the film has, indeed, changed his life, giving him new confidence.
"Back when I was 300 pounds, I struggled to see myself as a person," he said. "My mom is quoted in the film: "You can be the most handsome man in the world, but if you don't see value in yourself, no one else will."
"We tend to beat ourselves up a lot," he said. "I learned that I deserve good things and to be loved."