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Film Review: Don't Let Me Drown

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
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PARK CITY -- "Don't Let Me Drown" is one of the best film portraits yet of New York City in the aftermath of 9/11, where a city and its people cope with collective post-traumatic stress while military jets boom overhead and smoke from the Twin Towers hangs in the air.

Against considerable odds, it's a love story. Some of those odds have to do with the devastating impact the attack had on both families involved. Other odds stem from pre-9/11 animosities among ethnically different Latinos in Brooklyn and the cultural wars that always seem to happen between first- and second-generation immigrants.

Debuting director and co-writer Cruz Angeles checks into Sundance's dramatic competition with a poignant, funny and highly emotional bit of neo-realism photographed in a clean, crisp style on Brooklyn's graffiti-tagged streets. The mainstream market only grudgingly lets films of this nature in -- and only briefly -- but this crowd-pleaser will certainly do well at festivals.

In recent years, Latino films have showcased the impressive diversity in the Spanish-speaking North American world by burrowing deeply into Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran and Mexican-American communities to name a few. "Don't Let Me Drown" is unusual in its depiction of two different Latin communities within the same New York borough. Where the kids on the street may trash talk each other unmercifully, older family members want nothing to do with one another.

So, a month after 9/11, Lalo (E.J. Bonilla) and Stefanie (Gleendilys Inoa) meet at a birthday party. They do not hit it off. Not knowing Stefanie lost her sister at the World Trade Center, Lalo makes an insensitive remark and she storms off in rage. Stefanie's cousin (Dennis Kellum) hangs with Lalo after school, though, and the two eventually meet again and find they like each other.

Lalo's dad, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, was a janitor at the WTC, but he now works in the toxic dust to clean up at Ground Zero. He coughs up black debris from his lungs while Lalo's mom despairs over his meager pay.

Stefanie's family is Dominican. Her mom struggles to hold the family together as her dad rages at the world over the loss of his eldest daughter.

When the families learn of the blossoming relationship, they react with bigotry: What, Lalo's mom demands, is he doing with a thick-lipped black girl? Why, Stefanie's chauvinist dad screams, is she dishonoring her dead sister by acting like a whore?

Not a lot of room for family discussion there.

Stefanie tries to call it off. A few days of anger and tension ensue. Stefanie finally reaches out in a beautifully comic scene where she makes her cousin call Lalo to determine his real feelings for her while she listens in.

The film is fast-paced but finds more than enough time to explore the family dynamics, its personalities and struggles in a tough environment. Even Stefanie's dad, who is a monster, gets his due. Alone at night, away from everyone, he listens to the cell phone messages he never erased from his dead daughter. It doesn't excuse his tyrannical behavior, but you do empathize with him.

Bonilla is the veteran actor of the two leads. His is a steady presence on the screen. He acts with a thorough understanding of his character and his world and makes choices that fit perfectly. Inoa, in her debut, is more instinctual but the talent is clearly there. The fact that her Stefanie is the more emotional of the two works well and lets her find her way through a raging river of hurt and hardship that washes over her young soul.

Angeles, who wrote the script with producer Maria Topete, misses no steps. The ambiance of both the street and home lives of these characters rings true, the rawness of the impact of 9/11 on everyone is palpable and their sorrow and anxiety is never overplayed. Sundance has again given us new talent to watch.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Production: Parts and Labor & Rollin' Deep in association with Sterling Productions and Strange Loop
Cast: E. J. Bonilla, Gleendilys Inoa, Damian Alcazar, Ricardo Antonio Chavira, Gina Torres, Yareli Arizmendi, Dennis Kellum
Director: Cruz Angeles
Screenwriters: Maria Topete, Cruz Angeles
Producer: Maria Topete, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, James Lawler, Ben Howe
Executive producers: Ian McGloin, Virgil Price, Jamie Mai, Charlie Ledley
Director of photography: Chad Davidson
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Music: Daniel Belardinelli
Costume designer: Gracie Cox
Editor: Andrew Hafitz
No rating, 99 minutes