The Los Angeles Film Festival, colloquially referred to as LAFF, has for the past few years served as a keystone building block in the revitalization, and inevitably, gentrification of downtown Los Angeles, an empty, unloved fortress after dark less than a generation ago.
Now housed in the gleaming new Regal Stadium 14, a centerpiece of the busy L.A. Live shopping/entertainment complex, it sends notice that prestigious cinema-related events in the City of Angels need not be confined to the Westside, Hollywood’s traditional domain. And that’s appropriate, considering that the bulk of films unreeling at the fest are indie productions, not Jurassic World-type studio tentpoles. Guided by producer Stephanie Allain and veteran critic Elvis Mitchell, LAFF vies for attention with several other sprawling Los Angeles fests, but continues to develop its own identity.
A particularly impressive offering at this year’s edition is the blisteringly frank The Diary of a Teenage Girl, an honest examination of a hormonally-driven teen girl’s torrid affair with her mother’s boyfriend. Minnie (played by Brit actress Bel Powley) is an unremarkable-looking 15-year-old coming of age – and, boy, does she ever! — in the increasingly libertine sexual environment of 1970s San Francisco. Her mom (SNL stalwart Kristen Whig) is no prim and proper hausfrau, as she chain-smokes, encourages Minnie to don more revealing attire, and reminds her daughter that “you have a kind of power”. Little does Mom know that this “power” will be used, consciously and otherwise, to reel in her companion Monroe, a blandly handsome, mustachioed chap with the countenance of a ’70s porn star.
If this setup sounds like a standard-issue predatory-male-seduces-nubile-innocent youth, you’ve already derailed. Powley’s Minnie is no less than a kraven sexpot in tomboy drag. Giddy with sexual awakening, she’s as much a manipulator as a victim. In one early scene, she takes a naughty glee in saying “fuck” multiple times while conversing with Monroe, clearly egging on his libidinous male vanity.
Minnie is also a gifted artist, rendering R. Crumb-like drawings which descend into a sexual rabbit hole as the plot thickens. These sketches come to life, providing occasional comic relief, as Minnie’s sexual yearnings become all-consuming in a way that American society licenses to males, but still denies women, if they want to be thought of as “nice girls”. In that sense, The Diary of a Teenage Girl may be, unwittingly, a feminist fable, an unapologetic look at a precocious girl who refuses to curb her erotic demands.
Throughout the film, we hear news snippets about the scandalous Patty Hearst case, and it seems that Minnie is Hearst’s avatar in our tale. Hearst, of course, was initially viewed by many as a victim of her desperately misguided SLA captors, but may in fact have willingly participated in that now-legendary bank robbery. The specific year in which the story unfolds, 1976, is also the year when Jodie Foster appeared as a middle school streetwalker in Martin Scorsese’s scabrous Taxi Driver, but I won’t give away any details about a sequence in which Minnie and her best pal Tabitha take a walk on the wild side that occurred daily for Foster’s streetwise Iris.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl, directed by Marielle Heller, started life as a book – and its deeply personal narrational format suggests as much – then headed to the stage, and now enjoys its third incarnation as a film. I haven’t read or seen its previous iterations, but on celluloid, it’s a disturbing, provocative work.
Stealing Cars (2015)
I’m less sanguine about Stealing Cars, which nevertheless had its World Premiere at the fest. Emory Cohen, so memorable as the neurotic, closeted gay teen in Joshua Sanchez’s Four – which I watched at LAFF 2012 – here plays Billy, a wiseass teen philosopher, sort of a bro with a brain, who lapses into delinquency after a severe emotional trauma, and is quickly incarcerated at a juvenile prison. Predictably, he becomes ‘lord of the flies’, so to speak, and it’s a capable performance, but we’re let down by a plot that resembles an ABC Afterschool Special, especially in its surprisingly chaste language. Jailed teen boy convicts who don’t cuss? Really? Still, the film is visually-charged in a way that the naturalistic, unpretentious The asDiary of a Teenage Girl never is, and its director will hopefully seek out more sophisticated scripts in the future.
Missing People (2015)
Especially moving is the documentary Missing People, helmed by Queens native David Shapiro. We meet Martina Batan, a fleshy, gentle-faced woman who runs a Manhattan art gallery. Martina seems a tad melancholy, and we quickly learn that her brother Jeffrey was inexplicably murdered as a child in 1978, a grungy, rude period in Big Apple history when street crimes were soaring. While keeping Jeffrey’s items in storage, she works doggedly at completing a Lego miniature skyscraper, and collects the violent, crime-themed art of the late Roy Ferdinand, a New Orleans artist, who documented on canvas the street-level bloodletting that has plagued the Crescent City for decades.
The irony of a sibling bereaved by violence acquiring – almost fetishistically – these disturbing images of urban horror is inescapable, and we wonder why Martina is fascinated with this. Ferdinand’s drawings mostly depict people he knew and/or observed before they were killed, and thus represent a catalog, a graphic mausoleum of sorts, of the disappeared. Perhaps Martina sees a shadow of Jeffrey in some of them.
Shapiro also introduces us to Roy’s surviving sisters, and they bond with Martina, after some initial suspicion of her motives. This bond will prove crucial later, as a tragic development late in the film forces us to consider other issues. Shapiro nails the intimate moments with a quiet resonance, and we’re ultimately reminded of how precious and fragile life is.
I Am Thalente (2015)
Even those not enamored of skateboarding will find I Am Thalente rewarding. Natalie Johns’ documentary examines the struggles of young Thalente (pronounced T-a-l-e-n-t) Biyela, a street urchin from Durban, South Africa, as he hopes that his prodigious boarding skills will lift him from poverty.
Thalente was a homeless lad who jettisoned school at the very tender age of ten, embracing a sport perceived both in SA and the US as a white endeavor, as he told me himself during our brief chat. At some point, he’s ‘discovered’ by Tony Hawk, and makes his way to the States, proclaiming that “Everything’s different in America” without elaborating specific details. He’s a likable kid, peppering his lingo with words such as “dude” and “like”, and who knows if he picked up these colloquialisms back home or in his newly adopted country.
I Am Thalente is arguably a Horatio Alger tale, though we can’t yet know if Thalente will find that proverbial pot of gold. Indeed, he finds street skating a unique challenge, being accustomed to the defined contours of skate parks. Sharp camerawork and editing capture the thrills – and spills – of navigating stunts on pedestrian thoroughfares. He’s aided by a propulsive soundtrack, and this film would make a fine companion piece for Dogtown & Z-Boyz, Stacey Peralta’s seminal documentary about the rise of competitive skateboarding in the ’70s and ’80s.
Of course, it would be a travesty to compare the relatively privileged upbringings of the mostly white, lower-middle class Zephyr boys with that of a formerly homeless ragamuffin from post-apartheid South Africa – and oddly, I Am Thalente never references race, but narrative parallels abound, and Thalente’s Durban ‘hood is frequently reminiscent of Venice’s grubby Dogtown. Triumph-of-the-human-spirit stories can be tedious and predictable in narrative pictures, but documentaries often handle such material better, and I Am Thalente is no exception to this rule.
Dolphin Lover (2015)
Finally, among the shorts I saw was the discomfiting Dolphin Lover, and by the way, that title should be taken literally. Kareem Tabsch’s provocative documentary profiles an elderly man, memoirist Malcolm J. Brenner, coming out as a zoophile. During his college years, the object of his affections was “Dolly”, a female dolphin who performed at the now-defunct Florida Land theme park in the early ’70s. Tabsch’s film poses tricky questions about a subject repugnant to most, namely, inter-species sexual relations, and he blends animation, archival footage, and contemporary interviews to weave a surprisingly touching tale that will no doubt elicit giggles, but perhaps also a bit of compassion.