Young La Jollan makes film debut in ‘Mighty Oak,’ opening June 5

Actors in “Mighty Oak,” to be released by Paramount on Friday, June 5, are (from left) Ben Milliken, Carlos PenaVega, Janel Parrish, Tommy Ragen of La Jolla and Nana Ghana. They’re standing in front of a mural just off Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach.

“For me, music is about feeling,” says La Jolla’s Tommy Ragen, who at age 12 will make his movie debut in Paramount’s “Mighty Oak,” opening Friday, June 5.

“Music is my natural high, and if I’m ever feeling down I can listen to music or play music and it will really help me,” he said.

Music is at the center of the movie, and Tommy, a musician since he was 6, brings his songwriting and performing chops to the film in the title role of Oak.

Script writer Matt Allen, known for “Four Christmases,” “Soul Surfer” and work for Disney, Lionsgate, Warner Bros. and other major studios, based the story on a series of Tommy’s songs.

Sean McNamara, with whom Tommy’s father, Frank, had worked on a previous movie project, was brought in as director.

“Mighty Oak” tells the story of a band manager, Gina, played by Janel Parrish (“Pretty Little Liars” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”). She and her brother, Vaughn, and their band, Army of Love, are taking the Southern California music scene by storm. But her life suddenly falls to pieces when Vaughn, played by Levi Dylan, son of musician Jakob Dylan and grandson of music legend Bob Dylan, dies in a car accident.

When she meets a young performer named Oak Scoggins 10 years later, she believes he is Vaughn reincarnated.

The poster for "Mighty Oak."

Tommy describes Oak as “a shy kid, but he’s shy because of the bad things going on in his life. But he has a good heart and is easygoing. He always sees the good in the world, no matter how hard a time he’s having. He gains a lot of courage from being on the stage. It helps him overcome his shyness.”

“The importance of music in the story is that it is something that Oak and Gina have in common, and more importantly, Oak and her brother have in common. So it brings everyone together,” Tommy said.

His mother, Amy Ragen, added that the story was inspired by Tommy, who was cast at age 9 in the first national touring production of Broadway’s “School of Rock” musical.

“He has been playing guitar since he was 6 and writing songs since he was 8, and people would tell us he had an old soul and ideas like a grown-up,” she said. “So we had the idea of the story centering on him being a reincarnation of this rock star.”

The cast also includes Alexa PenaVega and Carlos PenaVega, who co-starred in “Spare Parts,” Raven-Symoné of “That’s So Raven,” Broadway actor Rodney Hicks, Nana Ghana of “What/If” and Gianna Harris of “School of Rock.”

Though the actors were drawn from Hollywood to Broadway, the musicians and locations are all local.

Band of Gringos opens the film on location at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, and the film includes music from artists such as Sophia Bachino, who grew up in La Jolla, and La Jolla High School graduate Caroline Corn, who wrote most of Tommy’s songs with him.

It also features San Diego spots such as the Lafayette Hotel and Lestat’s. And there’s a scene at Ocean Beach Elementary School, with students as extras.

Tommy’s sister Emma makes an appearance, and his best friend, Danny Ruiz, plays a kid who bullies Oak.

“It was really weird to play a bully, especially to my best friend,” said Danny, a student at Muirlands Middle School in La Jolla. “Filming was awesome, and Tommy and I have been talking since we were really little that we wanted to be in a movie together. It means a lot to me that we get to be in a movie together.”

Tommy Ragen (center) as Oak Scoggins appears with fellow La Jollan Danny Ruiz and Gianna Harris in the new film "Mighty Oak."
Tommy Ragen (center) as Oak Scoggins appears with fellow La Jollan Danny Ruiz and Gianna Harris in the new film “Mighty Oak.”

Tommy’s grandmother, Linda Smith Wendfeldt, daughter of late McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc, played his grandmother in the film.

Julia Michaels, music supervisor of “A Star is Born” and the “Pitch Perfect” films, came on board after watching a rough edit and hearing Tommy’s songs.

Coldplay’s Chris Martin saw the film and agreed to let “Mighty Oak” use the band’s recent single, “Orphans,” which he wrote with his 12-year-old son, Moses.

The filming process, Tommy said, “was the best few weeks of my life” and “so surreal.”

The movie actually coming out is even more surreal. The Ragens and their friends plan to be at the South Bay Drive-In Theatre on Friday for the opening. They hope it also will open that night at San Diego County’s other drive-in theater in Santee.

Paramount said it plans to expand showings as theaters across the country reopen from coronavirus shutdowns.

“I always knew it would come out, but it’s been in the editing process for more than a year, so now that it’s here, I feel so excited,” Tommy said with a laugh. “A few days ago, it hit me — I am in a movie that is coming out. ... But I really like acting, and I think this opportunity will help me explore and give my music a little bit of exposure. I’m really excited to see what I can do going forward.”

San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Diane Bell contributed to this report.