Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal (The Incessant Fear of Rape)


You really don’t want to get on her bad side.

(2018) Drama (Mumba DeviShalini Vatsa, Chitrangada Chakraborty, Kritika Pande, Vinay Sharma, Ahmareen Anjum, Sonal Joshi. Directed by Aditya Kripalani

In our patriarchal society, rape has been a hidden problem, one that is often not taken seriously by the powers that be. A large percentage of rapes go unreported because often the investigation and trial are nearly as bad if not worse than the actual sexual assault. As bad as things are in the United States however, they are infinitely worse in India.

Delhi is the rape capital of India (and quite possibly the entire planet). The women of Delhi live in a constant state of fear and hyper-awareness. At 8 pm, women know that the time for extra vigilance has come and being away from their homes is taking a terrible chance. Ladies-only taxi services have sprouted up because of the number of women who have gotten into taxis only to be driven to a remote spot and raped by the driver. Ladies only services only pick up women and have female drivers.

One such service is run by Shaila (Pande) who is also a student and a self-professed feminist. One evening she picks up a group of women to take home; Chitra (Chakraborty), a martial arts instructor, Vibha (Vatsa) an office worker and Shagun (Joshi), a police officer. Traffic, as is typical at rush hour, is bad and the women decide to stop an get a bite to eat before continuing on their way home. At a roadside eatery, they are harassed by a tough guy on a motorcycle, the kind of thing women around the world have to endure. It doesn’t end there, however.

As they are driving a cyclist pulls up next to them and makes some lewd remark- s which causes an accident…sort of. The motorcyclist ends up sprawled on the side of the road and the women come up with an idea; they are all tired of living in fear of being raped. They wanted to have men feel that same fear – maybe if they were to understand how it felt to know they could be violated at any time changes might actually come.

They take the guy (Sharma) to an abandoned room which had been used by criminals who had since been arrested. They lock him in a metal cabinet and leave him there with the intention of figuring out how to break him to the point where he becomes certain that he can be raped at any time.

The women use a variety of techniques to break him down, by treating him as a servant girl to chloroforming him and spraying pepper spray into the cabinet. Chitra turns out to have a lot of anger and often has to be restrained; Shagun reminds her that when they react to their captive, they are putting the power in his hands. Their job is to make him react to them. They are streaming video of their various indignities being visited upon him live to the Internet but what will happen when the day comes to actually convince the man in their possession that he is about to be raped?

Kripalani also directed the 2017 feature Tikli and Laxmi Bomb which dealt with the abuse of sex workers. This takes a broader look at rape culture and the effect it has on women. In all honesty, I don’t think there’s ever been a movie like this. Sure, we’ve seen our share of movies about women pushed to the edge (and often over it) by a sexual assault but those are generally revenge thrillers. There are elements of that here but I wouldn’t say this was a revenge thriller per se.

As with his previous film, Kripalani films largely on the streets of Mumbai and the movie has an authentic feel. While there are more sets in this film than in the last, the movie doesn’t feel static at all. There is kind of gravity pushing and pulling the film towards the inevitable climax which although somewhat anticlimactic in some ways, feels like the right direction for Kripalani to go in.

]Both Chakraborty and Pande appeared in his last film; they both deliver strong performances, particularly Chakraborty who is turning out to be an excellent actress. Chitra is a seething cauldron of rage who doesn’t need much prompting to erupt but at the same time she has a surprisingly vulnerable heart which is revealed in a moving conversation with Vibha late in the film. All of the characters have a personal connection to sexual assault which get revealed at various places in the film.

More or less this is cinema verite. There isn’t a lot of frills and the budget for the movie was likely not very large. The cinematography is a bit murky in places, like a ballroom lit by a 20 watt bulb.

I can’t imagine how women deal with the constant threat; the rules they have to follow – don’t get into an elevator alone with a strange man, when in a bar never drink anything you didn’t watch the bartender make and hand directly to you, always carry a rape whistle or pepper spray on your person, always park in well-lighted areas close to an exit. Be aware of what you’re wearing because that may be considered an invitation, or at least be used against you during the trial in the unlikely event that the crime goes to trial. These are things that men don’t deal with, can’t even conceive of. When the #MeToo movement began and women started posting that they had been victims of sexual harassment and/or assault, I had always known that the percentage of women who had gone through that horror was high but I didn’t realize how high it really was. I was shocked at how many friends and family had survived it.

There has been some blowback about the film; some men see it as threatening and even encouraging violence. I don’t know that I disagree; however, as far as understanding where that rage comes from, I can completely understand and even applaud the filmmakers for daring to tap into the rage of women, something that most men fear to do.

While the film has played the festival circuit, the producers tell me that Netflix has picked up the movie and will be streaming it this summer. I certainly hope so; I think a lot of men who could benefit from seeing it. The tragedy is that they probably aren’t aware that they are part of the problem.

REASONS TO SEE: A very timely premise considering the rise of people opposing rape culture.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lighting is a bit too dark.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some profanity and violence, sexual references and descriptions of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The words tottaa, pataaka, item and maal in Hindi are words that are used in Northern India to tease women. They loosely translate to “hot,” “sexy” and so on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rape Squad
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Diamantino

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Extra Innings


The waiting is the hardest part.

(2019) Drama (Ocean Parkway) Geraldine Singer, Aidan Pierce Brennan, Alex Walton, Albert Dabah, Robby Ramos, Mara Kassin, Simone Policano, Avery Powers, Ryan DeLuca, Erika Longo, Dylan Pitanza, Gavin Swartz, Juliette Gold, Victoria Ric, Ed Bergtold, Ava Curry, Meg Scanlon, Natasha Coppola-Shalom, Elise Finnerty. Directed by Albert Dabah

 

One of the great joys of movies is that often we get a glimpse into someone else’s life. That life may be harder than our own or easier; there may be more tragedy in it or less, but it is inescapably different than our own. In observing another person’s experiences, fictional or not, we learn something about our own.

David (Brennan) is a young middle school kid who loves baseball and why not? It is the early 1960s in Brooklyn and while the Dodgers are gone leaving a gaping open wound in Brooklyn’s heart, there is still the joy of playing out on the diamond. He has raw talent and his coach (Bergtold) thinks he has real potential.

David’s situation at home though makes it difficult for him to put all his energy into the game. David’s parents are Jewish of Syrian descent and while not Orthodox, his dad (Dabah) is strict about Jewish traditions and what is expected of his son. The family is also dealing with Morris (Ramos), David’s much older brother who is suffering from what appears to be some form of autism (at least to my untrained eye) at a time when it was little understood. Morris is essentially a shut-in and spends his days listening to classical music, sometimes at ear-splitting volume, and memorizing classic literature. Sometimes he finds it hard to communicate at all. David’s mom (Singer) is certain she is seeing some progress from her eldest son following a trip to Israel to consult with top doctors there.

David’s dad sees his younger son’s obsession with baseball as childish and foolish; it is nearly time for David’s bar mitzvah and he’s concerned that David isn’t devoting enough time to study. He also believes that David’s dream of playing baseball professionally is absolutely a fantasy; David should remain in his Brooklyn community, take a Jewish wife, raise a Jewish family and join the family business that Morris is clearly not equipped to handle.

The only person who appears to understand David is his older sister, free-spirited Vivian (Kassin) who lives in California with her husband although her marriage is on the rocks. She’s the only member of his family to see David play and is a manic cheerleader for him when she’s around. However, the family would soon be rocked by tragedy.

Fast forward to David’s senior year in high school. He’s still playing baseball and has become the star of the team; his family has come to more or less tolerate David’s obsession but the opinion of David’s father hasn’t changed at all. Still, things are going pretty good for David; he has a girlfriend in Natalie (Policano) and best of all, David’s coach has gotten him noticed by a West Coast university that wants David out there in the fall to play center field.

Naturally, David’s family is very much against this. They want him to stay local, play at a community college and then give up this baseball foolishness and get married, get a job yadda yadda yadda. However, David stands up for himself and puts his foot down; he’s got a golden opportunity and he’s going to take it. An ecstatic Vivian is thrilled for her baby brother and offers to put him up at her place in L.A. until he can get settled into a dorm. Unfortunately, tragedy isn’t done with David.

Dabah, making his feature film debut in the director’s chair, based the movie on his own experiences as a teen. While some of the events depicted in the film are slightly different than they occurred in reality, the basics are there. Dabah takes on the unusual challenge of playing his own father; one wonders if he got any insight into his dad in doing so.

This is clearly a project that has a great deal of personal meaning to Dabah and that passion shows in his meticulous attention to character development. There are no cookie cutter characters in this movie and for the most part the actors cast do their jobs well. I felt a little badly for Brennan; he has a scene in the film where he’s informed about a terrible personal tragedy and handling the emotional aspect of it was clearly not something he was experienced enough for. Dabah would have been better served to either keep David’s reaction off-screen or have the actor turn away from the camera. Just indulging in a little armchair directing there, but it would have spared the child actor from a difficult emotional scene and made the movie a little better as well.

While the budgetary restrictions were in evidence (although David’s team plays several games during the course of the movie, they’re always against the same team) what money Dabah had to work with is all onscreen. He does a decent job of recreating the 60s given his limited budget and more importantly, he makes the family products of the era as well.

The movie could have used some judicious editing; there seems to be some extraneous scenes that really reinforce what has already occurred in other scenes but brevity is a skill that is hard to master from a filmmaker’s point of view. Regardless of the movie’s flaws, it ended up growing on me the longer I watched it. Right now, the movie is just starting to show up in film festivals and at one-off screenings at Jewish community centers around New York but the producers hope to branch out at film festivals nationwide (are you listening, Central Florida Jewish Film Festival?) and hope to be on an online streaming service down the road.

REASONS TO SEE: Obviously made from the heart.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a bit more editing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual situations, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rockaway
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal (The Incessant Fear of Rape)

Little Woods


When you’re knocked to the floor it can be a savage affair getting back to your feet.

(2018) Drama (NEON) Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Lance Reddick, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Rochelle Robinson, Morgana Shaw, Joe Stevens, Brandon Potter, Alexis West, Lydia Tracy, Gary Teague, Jeremy St. James, Carolyn Hoffman, Lawrence Varnado, Jason Newman, Stan Taylor, Charlie Ray Reid, Max Hartman, Allison Moseley. Directed by Nia DaCosta

Sometimes, I wonder how on earth we ever ended up with our current President. One need look no further than this film which addresses issues that hit close to home for far too many working Americans, particularly those in rural areas – issues that the other party failed to address in 2016 and if they don’t get their act together and start talking to these same working Americans about these issues, will end up in a very similar result in 2020.

Ollie (Thompson) lives in a bleak town in North Dakota near the Canadian border. The town is booming thanks to the fracking industry and filled with plenty of rough and tumble men who work the pipeline. However, it’s a rough existence in which muscles are constantly in pain and the nagging work injuries aren’t well-served by the town clinic where the waits exceed the amount of time these men have to visit a medical facility so they rely on drug smugglers bringing Oxy from Canada at prices they can afford. This isn’t their story.

Ollie was one such smuggler who got caught. Out on probation, she is mourning her mother for whom she was caretaker during an extensive and eventually terminal illness. She remains in her mom’s house, sleeping on the floor of her mom’s room, trying to eke out a living selling coffee and sandwiches in lieu of painkillers. The house is in foreclosure and the bank isn’t particularly compassionate. Making money legitimately for a woman in this town is almost impossible; the career choices that pay enough to survive for women are essentially what Ollie got busted for and dancing on a pole (the world’s oldest profession goes unremarked upon but is likely a choice as well).

Ollie’s estranged sister Deb (James) returns at an inopportune time. Pregnant by her abusive alcoholic boyfriend (Dale) and trying to support a little boy on her own, Deb lives in a trailer illegally parked on a diner waitress paycheck that doesn’t begin to cover the cost of her pregnancy. The nearest abortion clinic (and the only one in the state) is 200 miles away and is still expensive enough that Deb can’t afford it. As Ollie puts it, your choices are only as good as your options.

The two manage to reconcile but it becomes obvious to Ollie that the only way out is to resume her previous life. She will need to make a run to Canada and get a Manitoba health care card for her sister to do it; the drug dealer (Evans) she worked for previously who is as dangerous as they come. As things spiral down from bad to worse to untenable, the two women must find an inner reservoir of strength that may not even be enough to get them through.

Although the movie addresses a lot of topics that have some serious political ramifications here in 2019, this isn’t the kind of movie that hits you in the face with its politics. DaCosta sets up a situation that is not uncommon among women in rural areas and lets the characters tell their own stories. When considering the assault on reproductive rights and Roe v. Wade that is occurring in certain states at the moment, one can appreciate the frustration and concern among women who are stuck in similar situations where money isn’t plentiful and neither are good options.

Okay, I need to stop getting political here but it can’t be denied that the issues are exceedingly timely. It also can’t be denied that Thompson, as Ollie, shows a range that puts her in very elite company and marks her as a potential Oscar contender down the road – maybe not necessarily for this film but for others that follow. She has that kind of capability. DaCosta, who has been tapped by Jordan Peele to helm the upcoming Candyman reboot, has a similar capability.

My issue is that the movie is taking too many clues from films like Frozen River and Winter’s Bone, both with powerful female leads placed in an environment of despair, drugs and bleak prospects. It gives the overall film a sense of familiarity that isn’t a good thing. The movie’s ending is also a bit disappointing and derivative. DaCosta didn’t have to reinvent the wheel but I thought her choice was a bit too safe. I also thought the score was a bit intrusive.

There is much to like about the film and despite its relatively low score I do urge most cinephiles to check it out. There is some real talent here in front of and behind the camera. There is a raw tone to the movie that might turn off some but nonetheless as mentioned before these are the people who are suffering in 21st century America and whose needs are far from being met. There is enough power here that despite the film’s flaws it is worthwhile to consider it for a look.

REASONS TO SEE: Thompson cements her reputation as an actress with big things ahead of her.
REASONS TO AVOID: Been there, seen that.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of drug references and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was conceived as a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frozen River
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
If the Dancer Dances

Nona


See no evil.

(2017) Drama (Rock Salt) Kate Bosworth, Sulem Calderon, Jesy McKinney, Diana Cabuto, Jasper Polish, Giancarlo Ruiz, Brittney Bell, Mildraide Lazarre, Lily Melgar, Chris Arellano, Ramsay Phelps, Jonathan Contreras, Billy Helmers, Mariana Cabrera Orozco. Directed by Michael Polish

 

Illegal immigration is a hot button topic these days and while some may chafe at the label “human rights crisis” that is in fact a more-than-adequate description of what’s going on at our southern border. Poverty and violence in Central and South American nations has led to a wave of refugees trying to make it to the United States and what has to be a better life than the one they are faced with.

Nona (Calderon) works in a small Honduran city “painting the dead”; that is, putting make-up on corpses at a local funeral home to make them funeral-ready. She is essentially alone; her father was gunned down on the way home from the local grocery to purchase a bag of chips, her brother knifed by a criminal gang, and her mother fled to America. Nona wants to join her but neither Nona nor her mother can afford the cost of getting her there.

Enter Hecho (McKinney), a bowler-wearing hipster with a free spirit and breezy attitude that belies his broken heart. He’s headed for Mexico – specifically Tijuana – and is willing to take Nona along for the company. She can pay him back for the expenses later. Although Nona is a smart and worldly sort, she finds the charm that Hecho exudes irresistible and agrees to go with him.

At first it seems like a great idea. Hecho seems to be in no particular hurry as they take various buses through the Honduras, Guatemala and into Mexico, sometimes taking boats and on one occasion, a yacht. Sometimes they just hoof it but Hecho seems to have plenty of money to buy food, and occasionally party in bars and discos. The difficult and dangerous journey to the border is portrayed essentially as a stroll in the park. But when Nona reaches the border and Hecho turns her over to a coyote who will get her into the country, the parting of ways hides a dark truth that will shatter Nona’s life.

The movie makes a very jarring turn about two thirds of the way in and it is completely unexpected. I toyed with the idea of revealing what that turn is but decided not to reveal it to give that turn greater impact. Suffice to say it reflects a problem that is all too prevalent in the immigration equation.

The first two thirds of the movie could well be a travelogue with the attractive couple of Nona and Hecho sampling the culture along the way. The cinematography is idyllic and the pace somewhat languid. There is no romantic relationship between Hecho and Nona and little sexual tension so any thoughts of romance through the first part of the movie is best left put on the back-burner.

I don’t have a problem with tonal shifts in films, even ones as completely opposite as the tone of the last half hour is to the first hour. The problem is that the first hour of the movie doesn’t really set up the last 30 minutes adequately; it feels like the filmmakers wanted to give the audience a sense of how Nona must have felt when confronted by her situation which changed radically in a matter of moments. It almost feels like two different films and maybe it is. I think Polish would have benefited by spending more time on the second half of the film and less on the first.

Polish is a veteran director who has an impressively diverse filmography, although none of his films to date have really blown me away. I think this one was meant to but at the end of the day, while it is timely and even borderline essential, it is a disappointing treatment of a subject that deserves better.

REASONS TO SEE: The chemistry between the leads is strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: The abrupt shift in narrative is jarring and not adequately set up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong sexual situations, rape, profanity, violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes:60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trafficked
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Echo in the Canyon

Master Maggie


Let the acting lesson begin.

(2019) Drama/Short (Goodface) Lorraine Bracco, Neil Jain, Brian Dennehy, Kenan Thompson, Chris Henry Coffey. Directed by Matthew Bonifacio

To be a great actor it doesn’t hurt to have a great acting coast and Maggie is one of the best. Thanked by both Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett in their Oscar acceptance speeches, Maggie has a client list that is strictly A-list, including Brian Dennehy and SNL veteran Kenan Thompson.

When a guy (Jain) comes off the street trying to wheedle a lesson out of her – he has a big audition with Law & Order the next day – she refuses at first but he’s persistent and eventually she agrees to give him a crash course. It is a lesson destined to change them both.

Bonifacio is no stranger to Tribeca, having debuted two well-received shorts there. This one has his best-known cast to date. Getting Bracco was a particular coup; she simply knocks it out of the park. Ever since The Sopranos ended, we really haven’t seen much of her onscreen; that’s a damn shame because she is really a wonderful actress. Jain, best-known for his work in the 2014 film The Quitter holds his own.

Bonifacio, drawing on his own experiences as an acting coach, wrote and produced the film with his wife Julianna Gelinas Bonifacio making this a family affair. The short has a sly sense of humor and an interesting twist at the end, although it isn’t super-revelatory.

I don’t generally review shorts but this one caught my attention with a terrific cast (I’m a big fan of both Dennehy and Bracco) and the cojones to tell veteran actor Dennehy that he needs to be more intense. Of course, when Tony Soprano’s shrink tells you that you need more intensity, then you get more intense, that’s the end of it. The short is currently appearing at the Tribeca Film Festival and is likely to play several more. Keep your eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: Bracco gives an intense performance, matched nicely by Jain.
REASONS TO AVOID: The twist is on the mild side.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit more than little ones can handle.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jain’s character is auditioning for Law & Order; Jain ironically appeared in a role on the Criminal Intent spin-off.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tutor
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Collisions


Nobody knows how to tuck you in as well as your mom.

(2018) Drama (Widdershins) Jesse Garcia, Izabella Alvarez, Ana de la Reguera, Jason Garcia Jr., Erika Yanin Perez, Clanya Cortes, Suilma Rodriguez, Molly Noble, Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Molly Brady, Joey Hoeber, Duane Lawrence, John Flanagan, Thomas Cokenias, Christopher Gonzales, Tina Marie Murray, Mike Schaeffer, Sarah Kramer, Veronica Valencia. Directed by Richard Levien

Over the last year or so, America’s immigration policy has come under fire, particularly in how families are treated at the border – children separated from their parents at the border and sent into cages to live. As horrific as that is, the media hasn’t really commented on the fact that immigrant parents have been deported for decades, often leaving their children at the tender mercies of the foster care system.

12-year-old science prodigy Ital (Alvarez) who has a very real chance of getting accepted to the California Science Academy and her younger brother Neto (Garcia Jr.) arrive home from school one day to find that their apartment has been apparently ransacked. However, it is much worse than that; ICE had broken into the home and arrested their mother Yoana (de la Reguera) and taken her to a detention center with the eventual plan to deport her.

They are placed with their uncle Evencio (Garcia), a carefree trucker who has been estranged from his more down-to-earth sister. The difference between Evencio and Yoana is that Evencio has a green card and Yoana does not. Evencio helps them find an immigration lawyer but Ital has little faith that the lawyer is competent enough to reunite the small family and insists that Evencio take them to see their mother who has since been transferred from the Bay Area where they live to a detention center outside of Phoenix. Reluctantly, Evencio takes the kids he doesn’t want on the road with him in his truck to see the sister with whom he doesn’t have much of a relationship.

Given the recent headlines, the movie is about as timely as it gets. With the Director of Homeland Security (under whose jurisdiction ICE falls) having recently been fired for not being hardline enough on illegal immigration, the movie undertakes to show the human side of the immigration question from the viewpoint of immigrants who are already in this country. Yoana works several jobs to support her kids and to provide them with a better life than she ever could have given them in Mexico. She’s a widow trying to do her best in a world that isn’t kind to people of her skin tone.

The movie is constructed as a character drama within a road movie within an issue film and while that’s not unique, it’s rare that a road movie revolves around any sort of issue and Levien is to be congratulated for making that kind of leap. He doesn’t sacrifice any of the elements that make the drama work to make it more of a road movie yet that’s what this demonstrably is. Everything works in harmony even though on paper you might think it wouldn’t.

While the adult performers (mainly Garcia but also de la Reguera in an abbreviated role) are all fine, the film is carried by Alvarez and Garcia Jr. Ital is a firecracker of a young girl who has had to grow up a little more quickly with her dad deceased; in some ways she’s the man of the house. Alvarez gives her the right amount of spine and vitriol – she doesn’t have a lot of respect for her ne’er-do-well uncle – and she is absolutely a mama bear when it comes to her younger brother. The character is written to be a little bit too precocious in my eyes and this becomes really apparent in the last reel when Ital decides to take matters into her own hands. I think any child would be absolutely terrified of having their mother taken away and we see Ital be angry about it but we never see the fear or hurt. Perhaps that is part of her nature but it doesn’t seem realistic to me. We don’t see the child side of Ital hardly at all.

Garcia also has a lot of screen time and Evencio is a kind of guy who likes to party and doesn’t take life too seriously. He drives a truck and makes a good living at it but it’s part of the lifestyle he wants which is of maximum freedom. So at truck stops he is happy to get wasted, party with truck stop hookers and generally hang out with his buddies. Of course, Evencio is a young guy and that is the nature of young guys so at least that part of his character makes logical sense.

The cinematography is solid which you would expect from a road movie, but not spectacular but then again it really doesn’t need to be. Vistas of desolate California would tend to distract from the human equation of the drama and that’s where the focus properly lies. Levien, a first-time feature filmmaker based in San Francisco, is trying to point out the inherent cruelty in this country’s policies regarding illegal immigration and in that he’s mostly successful. I get it that Ital needed to be a strong 12-year-old girl for the purposes of this movie but I think it would have benefited strongly if she had been allowed to be a little girl a little bit more.

REASONS TO SEE: A very timely subject well-acted by the cast.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film goes off the rails near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug use, a bit of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival near San Francisco.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Infiltrators
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Teen Spirit

Princess of the Row


A splendid springtime father/daughter stroll down the promenade.

(2019) Drama (Big Boss Creative) Tayler Buck, Edi Gathegi, Ana Ortiz, Martin Sheen, Jacob Vargas, Blake Michael, Jenny Gago, Tim Abell, Tabitha Brown, Anthony Jansen, Karim Diane, William Guirola, Braxton Davis, Danielle Dotson, Destiny Toliver, Sarah-Jayne Bedford, Monique Chachere, Pam Levin, Tori Griffith, Kelly Hancock. Directed by Van Maximilian Carlson

There is, unfortunately, no shortage of homeless people in this country today. Most of them are people who have fallen through the cracks, unable to support themselves due to mental illness, drug abuse or just plain bad luck. A staggering percentage of those living on the streets are children.

One such is Alisha (Buck), a street-savvy 12-year-old girl whose dad refers to her as Princess – that is, when he remembers who she is. For the most part, Iraq war vet Sgt. Beaumont “Bo” Willis (Gathegi) is caught up in a waking nightmare of mental illness, reliving terrible moments from his time in country. Willis was injured by a roadside bomb and his periods of lucidity are getting fewer and farther between. Alisha’s mother has long since split, a victim of her own nightmares generated by drug abuse. Father and daughter survive on the streets of L.A.’s Skid Row.

Alisha doesn’t have to live on the street. She has a caring social worker named Magdalene (Ortiz) who genuinely wants to see her safe and sound but time and time again, she refuses or runs away, preferring to be with her dad who has nobody to take care of him but Alisha. Her dad’s paranoid delusions preclude him from accepting any sort of help. Most of the time he is docile, going wherever Alisha leads him but occasionally something triggers him and he gets violent.

Alisha has become entirely suspicious of the motives of most adults, Magdalene’s obvious example aside she has dealt with far too many people who don’t have her best interests at heart. Even Magdalene doesn’t seem to understand how devoted she is to her dad nor is Magdalene able to act on it even if she did. Even genuinely good people like prospective foster parent John Austin (Sheen) who, like Alisha, is a talented writer is met with stony silence and suspicion.

Things begin to spiral from bad to worse as Alisha falls into the clutches of a human trafficker and briefly considers selling herself to get her dad and her out of L.A. and away to somewhere where they can both be safe. However, her dad’s demons surface at the most inopportune time and Alisha is left facing a nearly impossible decision.

In many ways this is a very powerful film and much of the reason for that is the performances. Buck does an impossibly mature job playing young Alisha and bears the burden of carrying the film on her back with dignity and grace. From time to time a child actor comes along that you know instinctively has enormous talent, talent enough to move on and become a big star in his or her own right. Buck is just such an actress; there isn’t one false note in her entire performance here and she pulls it off in a way that would make a whole lot of adult actresses green with envy.

Gathegi also gives a standout performance. Yes, I know he mostly has to stare straight ahead with a blank expression but you try doing that for a long length of time and see how difficult it is to do. In rare moments of lucidity, Bo is fully aware that he is an anchor dragging his daughter down into his own private hell and he whispers to her gently that it is all right for her to let him go. We never know if he heard him until the very end of the film. The chemistry between Buck and Gathegi is natural and alive; the two work seamlessly off one another. The performances aren’t the problem here.

In many ways this is a very cliché film and Carlson like many indie filmmakers seems loathe to make the kind of deep cuts during the editing process (Carlson is an editor by trade and the hardest thing in that line of work to do is to edit your own footage objectively) that the film needed. As a result, it feels at times that the plot is running in place and not getting anywhere. Not only is the movie on the long side, the plot has a whole lot of clichés; the well-meaning social worker with an overwhelming case load and constraints laid on her by an unfeeling bureaucracy; a war veteran with psychological (or in this case physical issues causing the psychological) issues, a seemingly nice guy offering salvation but delivering damnation.

It’s a shame because I think there are a lot of good ideas here. In the interest of transparency however, I should point out that of my circle of friends who have seen the film, I am very much in the minority – Da Queen in fact has proclaimed this as her favorite film of the Festival so far. I can see where she would like it – the father-daughter relationship is very powerful here and I think a lot of people are going to be swept up by it and that’s not a bad thing. Still, those who look beyond the best feature of the film might see a few imperfections in the overall work.

REASONS TO SEE: Buck delivers a strong performance and has good chemistry with Gathegi.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie wanders a bit and could have been a little shorter.
FAMILY VALUES: The is a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a scene of sexuality and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlson is best known for his 2011 award-winning documentary Bhopali.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Most Dangerous Year