Before she inspired her father's debut film, "Smile" -- a feature about an American teenager who goes abroad to help children with facial deformities -- Katie Kramer was a normal, popular student at Malibu High School.
"I had a boyfriend, I had friends, I shopped," she said. "I lived in a world where a lot of material things were important, but I always knew that other things were important and that there was more inside of me to give."
Kramer found it when she signed up for a school club, Operation Smile, a Virginia-based charity that provides free reconstructive surgery for children in Third World countries. In 2002, she left her family's five-bedroom ranch house for a hospital in the Philippines, where she worked 18-hour shifts helping to facilitate operations.
"It was a shock," she said of her initial experience. "I walked into a room filled with 75 children who had facial deformities, all of whom had been ostracized, some of whom had walked for days to reach the hospital. But I told myself not to cry, because I realized I could help make a difference in their lives."
Kramer, now 19, returned home determined to become a doctor and to remain active in charitable causes -- a change that prompted her father, actor Jeffrey Kramer, to turn her emotional journey into a film.
Unlike the real Katie, who worked to help pay for her black Volkswagen Jetta and also intensely trained as a competitive ice skater, the fictional Katie is selfish and high-maintenance, but she finds her heart as she befriends a Chinese girl who had been abandoned as a newborn because of her cleft palate.
The director learned about dozens of such stories while interviewing Operation Smile personnel -- as well as psychological traits he brought to his characters. "The children who come in for surgeries hide their faces, and they hide themselves emotionally," he said. "Afterward, they feel emotionally free for the first time in their lives."
Katie Kramer, like "Smile's" heroine, found her own transformation to be dramatic.
"The typical teenage problems that used to trouble me have become so unimportant," she said.
"Smile" opens today in Los Angeles.
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