It’s always nice to check out local independent films and the LA Film Festival offers up a good handful. Some, like Entrance or How To Cheat, are being promoted but not always well received, of course (and L!fe Happens looks highly iffy) but when it works, the local film can be rather special. Echo Park-set Mamitas received its world premiere at the festival this week and is going to be, I would guess, a deserved shoe-in for the audience award.
Jordin is a “typical” Latino high schooler, all “dog” this and “homie” that swagger. But we know from the off that that’s not his all: as he and his chum check out the mamacitas in the gym hall his eye is caught by the quiet girl in dumpy clothes and spectacles. Semi-randomly thrown together, he doesn’t need to put on his act with her; besides, she can see right through it and she’s a tough little cookie. So half the film is about the suspended jerk-off and the scholarship student, each belying the stereotype of their image. And they’re lovely – the whole cast plays with a fine easy naturalism, but the leads have charm to spare.
E.J. Bonilla as Jordin perfectly handles the ostensibly contradictory elements of his character: playa attitude and devoted grandson, class clown who gets 90% on standardized tests. The girl, Felipa, asks him if he really enjoys being an ass, and his grin and “yeah, kind of” nails it. Veronica Diaz-Carranza has the self-possession to match, as Felipa, with a gorgeous smile and some quite unfounded self-image issues. Their friendship develops in a splendidly natural fashion and it’s a great shame she drops out of the film for a stretch – it’s definitely about him rather than them – as Jordin struggles with his family insecurities and seeks answers from the Santa Barbara philosophy professor whom he thinks might be his real dad (a terrifically laid-back Joaquim de Almeida, with more than a touch of Geoffrey Rush about him).
None of the issues is belaboured, but they are given enough solidity to be more than pat (only the strand of Felipa’s mother feels too vaguely programmatic). In fact, apart from the setting, there’s nothing original at all about the film – the beats of the story and its substance could have come from some screenplay-generating logarithm and are the stuff of TV movies or soap opera even. But the comparison is unfair, as director Nicholas Ozeki tells his tale with sincerity: a certain amount of audience manipulation is built-in, and is gently persistent in the film-making, but never meretricious – it totally pulls off the kid reading on a crummy rooftop with the shiny cluster of downtown skyscrapers in the background (not least because what he’s reading is a doozy).
That downtown background is effective but overused, and the socio-economic climate is treated only in passing (and Jennifer Esposito makes for an improbably hot teacher), but one can forgive these things along with some horrible shaky camerawork a couple of cheap zooms and even a Vaseline smeared imagined-past sequence: the charm of the leads and the evocation of milieu set it aside immediately from the run of the mill, and its trueness of heart make it a crowd-pleaser in the best sense.
An illustration: the festival indents before each movie are even more irritatingly trite than is usually the case, but in this screening, a large part of the audience responded with applause. At the end of Mamitas, we all did.
Watch the Trailer.