EmptyThe Altmanesque crisscrosser, tracking the colliding orbits of a number of characters in a single city, is one of the most overused forms of movie storytelling. Like most films of the mini-genre, the Los Angeles-set "Garden Party" is less than the sum of its parts.
It's not without cliches, particularly as it reaches for broader meaning about Hollywood. But in its well-observed particulars, and especially its depiction of the ways high and low intersect -- often through drugs and porn -- the film is an absorbing group portrait of teens and twentysomethings on the fringes of the dream machine. The Roadside Attractions title, which opens Friday in limited release, will click with younger viewers.
Writer-director Jason Freeland ("Brown's Requiem") populates his drama with moderately well-known faces and many fresh ones, all of whom serve his story well. The threads unwind and tangle in the Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park area of Los Angeles, in the physical and psychic shadow of Hollywood. Every one of his characters has a price, and none is especially likable. Their dealmaking has nothing to do with movies; the main commodities they exchange are pot, their bodies and real estate.
At the center of the goings-on is Sally St. Claire (Vinessa Shaw), a stripper-turned-Realtor who uses her voluptuous looks and well-tended indoor pot farm to build her business. Spinning around her at various degrees of separation are her frazzled, on-a-leash assistant, Nathan (Alex Cendese), and an on-her-own teen, April (Willa Holland), who both shed their clothes to make a quick buck posing for a creepily pleasant photographer (Patrick Fischler). Sammy (Erik Scott Smith), a homeless singer looking for a band, finds shelter with Nathan, whose generosity is not without strings. An independently wealthy painter (Richard Gunn) snaps out of his sleepwalking when he meets Sally, who happens to be the girl of his dreams -- or at least of his fantasies, courtesy of photos her ex-boyfriend sold to an Internet site run by the same photographer who ... and so on.
Freeland's plot mechanics aren't always plausible, but his eye for behavioral nuance is sharp -- a rich teen's pool party feels real -- and his dialogue rings true, even when it's the rat-a-tat showbiz bluster of a manager (Ross Patterson) who takes an interest in the talented Sammy. The most hackneyed invention is leather-jacketed heel Davey (the late Christopher Allport), a rival Realtor of Sally's. But here too a certain truthful edge transcends the familiar, even if it doesn't go far beneath the surface.