“I no stay in a hotel?” Just arrived from Mexico, Olivia (Jessica Pimentel) is beginning to worry. A lunky fellow named Ivan (Daniel Oreskes) has picked her up at JFK and dumped her in a Queens kitchen, where she now faces Donna (Judith Hawking). With big smile and big cleavage, Donna assures her that a hotel is too much trouble (“It’s more comfortable here”), then puts out her hand: “The first think I need is your passport,” she says, so the man who’s hiring Olivia as a waitress can make sure all the paperwork is in order, “so nobody gets in trouble or nothing.” Olivia pauses, briefly. And then she hands over her passport.
It’s just five minutes into Off Jackson Avenue, and already you’re skeptical. It’s plain that Olivia is a means to an end, dropped into this stereotypically bad situation in order to set up for a broader critique of American dreaming, the fictions that innocents believe. Olivia passes a room where girls in cheap lingerie loll on sofas. Again, she pauses, but it’s too late, as she’s handed over her passport. Still, she’s not weak, which is why, when Ivan leads her upstairs and tells her to wash up and, as she puts it, foot a-stomping, “dress like a puta.”
Olivia’s resistance is predictably short-lived. As soon as she demands her passport, she’s literally slapped to the ground by her ne Albanian pimp, Milot (Stivi Paskosi). To make sure she understands his point, he drags her back upstairs and throws her onto the bed, where he strangles her with his belt while imposing his repulsive will. “You gonna fucking work,” he grunts. “Look at this, mami, look at this fucking thing.”
So now you think you know. The rest of Off Jackson Avenue will be focused on Olivia’s struggle against such subjugation and abuse, her admirable resolve, and her shifting sense of self. All this is in fact true, but it comprises just a part of John-Luke Montias’ movie, which splits off into two other stories of ambition and consumption in the titular neighborhood. For one, Joey (Montias) is boosting cars in hopes of purchasing a tire shop, which he imagines will be a “legitimate fucking business.” For the other, a Japanese hitman, Tomo (Jun Suenaga), arrives in town to complete a job for a Chinese mobster. Cool and inscrutable in his black suit, Tomo informs his employer of his requirements (a hotel room, a .22, and hollow tip bullets). But he’s not so clichéd as he looks, or rather, he’s clichéd in way you might not expect: Tomo is a troubled assassin, specifically, bothered by increasingly vivid visions of his mother (Aki Ando), wondering (silently) why he’s left her behind to pursue such grisly business.
Eclectic as it sounds, the movie doesn’t quite tip over into J-horror here. Instead, the haunting opens up other thematic layers, namely, family tensions. If Tomo is unable to express to his mother his regret over abandoning her and guilt over his avocation (in real life, he’s a schoolteacher), his increasingly disturbing visions make clear enough that he’s left some basic issues unresolved (these remain vague, or rather, arrested at a vague “mama’s boy” insinuation). At the same time, Joey, when he’s not stealing cars or making down payments on the shop, is urging his Uncle Jack (Gene Ruffini) to join him in the new business. The old man is reluctant, going so far as announcing his desire to move to Florida because he’s having trouble making it up and down stairways. Neither is he convinced by Joey’s argument that stealing cars doesn’t hurt the people he’s ripping off (“That’s why they have insurance”). If their bickering isn’t precisely based on moral differences, it is pretty clearly based on a generational split.
Olivia’s problems at home don’t emerge until late in Off Jackson Avenue. Still, it’s not hard to guess that something substantial has driven her to risk coming to America alone and without a backup plan. She ends up being gutsy, shrewd, and fed up in a way that makes her look ripe for a Quentin Tarantino movie, pulling along and encouraged by a fellow prostitute, Olga (Aya Cash). Making their way along the sidewalk, suitcase on wheels rumbling behind them, the girls look alternately tough and vulnerable, free of romantic hopes of rescue or return to their former lives, yet also sad for what they’ve lost. The film doesn’t take enough time to represent that loss or its consequences, being so invested in its multiple and eventually colliding story strands. But the girls on the sidewalk is a powerful image, hinting at effects beyond clichés and are best left unspoken.