‘Lake Los Angeles’: LAFF Review

Small Form Films
The bleak setting’s a knockout, the story strained.

Southern California filmmaker Mike Ott completes his Antelope Valley trilogy with a drama about two immigrants from Latin America.

Two lone souls, both immigrants separated from their families, make a brief, potentially lasting father-daughter connection in Lake Los Angeles, a tale of solitude, longing, poetic parables and comforting lies. The final installment in Mike Ott’s Antelope Valley trilogy is, like the first two features, more persuasive visually than dramatically, although the central characters — a middle-aged Cuban laborer and a 10-year-old girl just arrived from Mexico — are compelling in their self-containment. In human terms, the movie is essentially a two-hander, but the wind-scrubbed landscape plays more than a supporting role.

VIDEO The Most Anticipated Summer Blockbusters of 2014

Taking its title from a high-desert town in the relatively underpopulated stretches of northern Los Angeles County, the film is a departure from the youth-focused ennui of Littlerock and Pearblossom Hwy. But it continues the exploration by Ott and screenwriting partner Atsuko Okatsuka of edge-of-the-world locations and strangers in a strange land. Aiming more directly this time for allegorical impact, Ott doesn’t quite achieve it. There are potent images and jolts of involving tension, but for all its desolate atmosphere, Lake — which had its world premiere at the L.A. Film Fest — feels too studied, its narrative framework all too visible.

Roberto Sanchez, who had supporting roles in Ott’s two previous films, portrays Francisco, a loner who works day-labor jobs, has joyless encounters with prostitutes and sends money to his wife and kids in Havana. In recorded letters home (the movie relies on voiceover for significant portions of its running time), he dresses up the depressing realities of his life. A job dismantling an abandoned building becomes “working in an office.” When it comes to his main source of income — as the middleman in a trafficking scheme, he feeds and watches illegal immigrants while they’re at a stopover “holding house” — he says that he’s devoting his spare time to “taking care of hurt animals.”

Among those wounded beings is a “scared kitten” who refuses to eat or talk: Cecilia (Johanna Trujillo), whose mother didn’t make it across the border with her and whose stateside father has yet to show up. Cecilia saves her conversational energies for the snow globe she carries like a talisman, addressing the fisherman figure within it as Old Man and spinning tales of sacrifice and love, full of lyrical nature imagery. Francisco’s efforts to break through her protective shell succeed, to a point, and they forge a tentative bond. But after a disquieting encounter with Adria (Eloy Mendez), the man who delivers the human cargo to Francisco, the girl escapes into the Mojave, finding shelter in a derelict house. Lied to by Adria, Francisco believes she’s with her father.

PHOTOS Best and Worst TV Dads: 'Modern Family,' 'Arrested Development,' 'The Simpsons'

Ott intercuts their solitary trials, drawing parallels, particularly in their separate moments of rising danger. To the credit of the writers, the movie avoids any predictable dives into plot-thickening downward spirals, instead letting the potential perils dissipate, as they so often do in life, not with a bang but a whimper.

Both lead actors bring a watchful stillness to their roles. In Sanchez’s pained gaze, it’s evident that Francisco’s dream of a new life for his family is one he can’t realize and can’t let go of. And Trujillo imbues Cecilia with an old soul, making her survival skills thoroughly believable. Yet a formulaic sentimentality underlies the film’s restraint, and however strong the performances, the Antelope Valley remains the character with the greatest weight.

Rendered in a desaturated palette, DP Mike Gioulakis’ widescreen compositions get the expansion/contraction paradox of the region, so near and yet so far from metropolitan Los Angeles: wide-open horizon and quashed hopes. The score by Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir, spare and anguished, deepens the sense of place, as does Jan Bezouska’s sound design, punctuating the drama with the warning snarl of guard dogs, the blare of highway horns, the thrum of wind turbines.

PHOTOS Drink Up, Dad: 15 Bottles of Booze to Celebrate Father's Day With a Buzz

Despite the shortcomings of his three-movie project, Ott has focused on a forgotten place with compassion as well as a keen artist’s eye. It will be worth noting where he turns his lens next.

Production company: Small Form Films
Cast: Johanna Trujillo, Roberto Sanchez, Eloy Mendez
Director: Mike Ott
Screenwriters: Atsuko Okatsuka, Mike Ott
Producers: Alex Gioulakis, Atsuko Okatsuka, Trinity Shi, Drea Clark, Fred Thornton
Executive producers: Athina Rachel Tsangari, Dawn Densmore
Director of photography: Mike Gioulakis
Production designer: Minjung Kim
Costume designer: Alex Simone
Editor: Santos S. Santos
Composer: Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir
Sound designer: Jan Bezouska
No rating, 85 minutes

comments powered by Disqus