Monday, 12 March 2007

Echo Park LA (2006)

Echo Park LA

The first thing that needs to be said right upfront is that the picture sleeve used to promote this DVD release is one of the most misleading I've ever seen!

If you've read the synopsis of the film, describing the story as being about a tough 'cholo' with a troubled past, eyeballed the Sundance Festival awards, and noted the attitude displayed on the cover you're probably expecting a dark, gritty, Children of God -styled indie movie, complete with loud, hip-hop soundtrack and endless four letter words.

What you're actually going to get is a rather sweet, if somewhat naive, Richard Curtis -styled 'coming of age' story about the importance of friends and family, where 'family' sometimes has to be a makeshift one. This is a film with mainstream mass market appeal, although you'd never think so from the cover, or the basic plot synopsis!

Magdalena and boyfriend don't yet realise their world is about to fall apart

Titled Quienceanera in the States, named after the formal 'coming of age' ceremony that fifteen year old Mexican girls undertake, the film opens and closes with two such ceremonies which occur in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. Over the opening titles we meet Magdalena (Emily Rios) and her boyfriend Herman (J.R. Cruz) who are having an argument about whether or not he's been seeing another girl. The celebration, for one of Magdalena's friends, is interrupted by the unwanted arrival of her cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), a self-professed trouble-maker who has been thrown out of his family home when his parents discovered he had been surfing gay web sites on his computer. Carlos has been taken in by a kindly uncle, Tomas, and when Magdalena subsequently finds herself in difficult circumstances with her own family, she runs to Tomas for refuge. What follows is a story about friendship, tolerance and taking care of one another, albeit one seen through rather rose-tinted spectacles with rather large doses of saccharine folded in for good measure.

Performed by a largely unknown cast, the performances are, for the most part, astonishing, and hold together the rather silly story elements. I wasn't entirely convinced by Emily Rios as Magdalena, which is somewhat worrying as she has by far the largest part in the story, but she's rescued by excellent fellow-actors who help make her look good, particularly J.R. Cruz as her boyfriend, and the stage actor who plays her father (Jesus Castanos Chima?).

Jerry Garcia does a fantastic job playing the underwritten role of Carlos, not an easy role for a straight middle-class boy, given that he has to play a smouldering, thuggish gay who's supposed to be a virgin on one hand, whilst also being so at ease with his sexuality that he's happy to lose his cherry to a predatory couple of neighbours who entice him into a three-way! When I say 'thuggish' I mean the word in its sugar-coated Hollywood sense - not as a violent fighter or murderer, but as the definition of someone who steals flowers for his boyfriend, or (gasp!) puts his feet on the sofa, and (shock! horror!) drinks the communal orange juice straight out of the bottle! Oh well, maybe believing he's a nellie isn't such a stretch for the actor after all!

To be more serious for a moment, this is a 'thug' as defined by the 'gay wish fulfillment fantasy' sense of the word, rather than any real dictionary definition!

Bad boy Carlos falls in with an extremely predatory gay couple

If credibility is stretched somewhat by the under-written Carlos character, it's stretched even more by the unwanted pregnancy of Magdalena - a pregnancy that is the start of a seemingly disastrous series of events that will cause the safe, established world of Carlos and his Uncle Tomas to fall apart around them. The viewer is asked to believe that Magdalena is a virgin who's never had penetrative sex with her boyfriend! Well, you can maybe start to see why I think the film enters the realm of 'fairy tale' rather than any kind of reality!

Fortunately, the film is saved by wonderful little episodic elements that revolve around the Latino community at the heart of the film, and the reality of the middle-class bourgeoisie life represented by the white gay couple who live as neighbours to Carlos and Uncle Tomas in the upcoming Echo Park area. Ex- Bad Boys Inc. band member David W. Ross gives a very convincing performance as the younger, bored half of a couple that decides he wants to cheat behind his older partner's back after the two of them have a three-way with Carlos, and is matched by Jason L. Wood who, amazingly, is a casting director who stepped in to act only when the directors couldn't find anyone else to play the role. I should probably add, for more squeamish readers, that although there are several gay characters in the film, and much talk of three-ways, there is no male nudity or indeed anything much that could possibly terrify Middle England, although there are a couple of quick, relaxed "dude's kissing" moments that might put some off.

Kindly Uncle Thomas becomes father to the makeshift family of Carlos and Magdalena

Given the 'feel good, but rather light' nature of the film, I'm somewhat surprised the film won the Dramatic Grand Jury and Dramatic Audience Award at last year's Sundance Festival. It's certainly an enjoyably perky 90 minutes of entertainment, but doesn't feel like something I haven't already seen many times before. Part of the reason the awards were granted may be down to the writers/directors, who somehow managed to get their first film written and completed within just a few months of having the idea to make a film. The film is very polished, given that the makers apparently had no real prior experience of either writing a script, or directing a feature film.

The transfer is fine given the indie origins. Shot originally on high definition cameras', frequently hand-held, there's a lot of grain in places, particularly in the night scenes, but nothing to get too upset about. The Quienceanera celebration scenes are particularly well shot, and give a real sense of the occasion, the formality and the importance of the event within the Latino community.

Newcomer Jesse Garcia gives a convincing performance as smouldering Carlos

Extra's are quite generous for an indie release like this. The Making of is extremely honest, showing the ramshackle nature of how the project got financed, written, improvised and completed, with writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland coming across as very self-effacing. They are at pains to point out in the featurette and on the commentary that despite having the same home, age differences, nationality and sexuality as the gay couple depicted in the film, these characters are NOT based on their own lives! The British half of the writing/directing couple gives a very lively, enthusiastic commentary track and is joined not just by his partner but the male and female lead who, as seems to be usual with these things, have very little to contribute to proceedings, even when directly asked a question

As a personal footnote, I should add that I derived much unintentioned hilarity at the references to Bad Boys Inc, having been 'a huge boy band' in Britain. Ian Levine must have been writing silly, fictitious press releases again. Just because he writes something down as wish-fulfillment doesn't make it fact!

With better distribution there is little doubt that Echo Park LA could have received a much wider, mainstream release with corresponding box office success. It's a little film with a big heart, providing the sort of escapism that is what makes the movies so enjoyable for large parts of the population. I'm not convinced it's necessarily a purchase, and the subject matter may initially appear to be off-putting, but if you can get over the basic premise as a rental it comes highly recommended.

213 is the area code for Echo Park LA

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