(2020) Musical (Good Deed) Tyris Winter, Marquesha Babers, Maia Major, Austin Antoine, Bryce Banks, Amaya Blankenship, Bene’t Benton, Gordon Ip, Gihee Hong, Anna Osuna, Caedmon Branch, Mila Cuda, Paolina Acuña-Gonazlez, Gabriela de Luna, Sun Park, Walter Finnie Jr., Jason Alvarez, Doug Klinger, Joel Dupont, Sophia Thomas. Directed by Carlos López Estrada
I grew up in Los Angeles. I spent my formative years there, from age six until I graduated college at age 21. I still feel deep connective roots to L.A. and so movies that are love letters to the City of Angels often tap a soft spot in my heart. Just sayin’.
Carlos López Estrada’s (Blindspotting) new film is just that. Set on a warm, summer day in La La Land, it careens from the beach communities to the inner city to the suburban neighborhoods of Los Angeles, which was once described when I was living there as a bunch of suburbs in search of a city. That’s a bit of a mean-spirited description, but it isn’t entirely inaccurate.
There’s not much plot here; in that sense, this is more of a collection of shorts than a cohesive whole but essentially, we are taken on a tour of the neighborhoods of L.A. by a group of young poets, each with their own issues. The characters sometimes are on their own, other times they run into each other (sometimes literally) and only at the end do we have any sort of cohesive group moment. The individual poets wrote their own poetry and created their own characters, often using their own names. For example, Tyris Winter plays a young gay black man who has been rejected by his family and is essentially crashing on the couches of his friends. Outraged by the gentrification of a beloved diner that no longer serves hamburgers but instead offers avocado toast for fifteen bucks, he goes on a rant against the high price of things before stalking out in search of a moderately priced burger, which turns out to be more of a difficult quest than he (or we) expect. He is one of the bright spots in the film and tends to be the connecting tissue for the whole movie.
Then there is Marquesha Babers who just about steals the show near the end of the film as a plus-sized girl who has been hurt because of her size. Toting a book by a therapist that urges its readers to “rap away their demons,” she confronts an ex-crush who rejected her because of her weight and lets him have it in an emotional bring-down-the-house rap that anyone who has been rejected by a potential romantic partner because of their size or their looks will certainly relate to.
Adding comedy relief is the rapping duo of Anewbyss (Banks) and Rah (Antoine) who go from street corner rappers struggling to get people to buy their mixtape to jaded hitmaking superstars during the course of a single day, lamenting in a crowded burger joint that they miss the simplicity of their former lives. That comes directly after a rant by a fast food worker (Yip) who, fed up with a counter full of Karens and a minimum wage job that expects him to provide elite level service, decides to give away burgers to all comers.
The other highlight for me is an argument between mother (de Luna) and daughter (Acuña-Gonzalez) about the shade of the daughter’s lipstick, which leads to a discussion about how men perceive women which leads to a wonderful dance of waitresses in bright red dresses accosting a car full of wolf-whistlers with an assertive dance that is beautiful in its empowerment.
Not everything works; the opening song which involves a skateboarding guitar player singing a folky love song to L.A. falls a bit flat, sounding pretentious and at times the artists do sink into self-righteous diatribes. Some of the performances are stiff, or unnecessarily over-the-top, even some of the good ones occasionally lose focus.
All of the poets are from one marginalized group or another, whether it be people of color, LGBTQ, plus-size people, or women. Some will roll their eyes and smirk “Hollywood liberalism” at that, but it’s hard to forget that these are groups that have largely been ignored and get to express their joy and their love for a city that is often misunderstood.
Honestly, I’m not particularly into rap or slam poetry, and there’s a lot of both here but I found myself drawn in to the feeling of community and neighborhood. This is not the idealized L.A. of other movies, but a more realistic one where diversity has led to some cultural overlapping and a bit more acceptance among those who have grown up among other cultures, other points of view. Those who grew up in a single culture may dismiss this as woke Hollywood socialist crap, but they miss the point. This is about all of us being in the same leaky boat and while the boat might be a little beat up and dingy, there is much to love about it. This is a movie that may not be on your radar that you should definitely check out.
REASONS TO SEE: Compelling and innovative, a movie that grows on you as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the sequences are overly mannered and pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Estrada got the idea for the movie while watching a poetry slam event in L.A.; most of the cast were recruited from similar area events.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews; Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Heights
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Green Sea