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So, a man and a woman meet at a park bench and sit down to discuss literature. It sounds like the set-up for a joke, but it’s pretty much all that goes on in Ann LeSchander‘s exceedingly modest, virtually two-hander debut feature that might have been more effective as an off-off-Broadway play. Depicting the growing attraction that develops between two mismatched people—a high-strung grad student on her way to becoming a librarian and the Hispanic man in need of tutoring to pass his English lit course—The Park Bench never manages to transcend its low-key premise. It may be endlessly talky, but My Dinner with Andre it ain’t.
The two characters’ natures are immediately established. Emily (Nicole Hayden) is prim and proper, engaged to be married to a man who the audience immediately senses is not the love of her life. Mateo (Walter Perez), the son of Mexican immigrants, is an earthy, hedonistic type who struggles to complete his studies while still working long shifts picking strawberries and who at one point shows up for his lesson still wearing his mariachi singer outfit from another low-paying gig.
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Their conversations initially concern such literary works as The Great Gatsby, which Mateo strongly rejects as representing the downside of pursuing the American dream, pointing to his parents’ desperate struggle to cross the border as a more realistic depiction. Emily confesses that her favorite novel is Ethan Frome, whose themes of thwarted desires none too subtly mirror her own personal frustrations.
The couples’ personal stories are periodically illustrated by animated, fairy tale-like interludes which, while providing much needed visual diversion from the otherwise static proceedings, generally come across as far too twee.
The director/screenwriter attempts to infuse drama into the narrative via such offscreen events as Emily’s angst over her fiancé inviting his ex-girlfriend to their wedding and the death of Mateo’s mother. Other minor characters occasionally wander into the non-action, including Emily’s elderly professor and a birdwatcher in need of directions, to little effect.
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Other episodes involve Emily attempting to prepare her two-left-footed fiancé for their first wedding dance, and Mateo, clearly a ladies’ man, engaging in a torrid make-out session with a hot young woman straddling him. (To the film’s credit, the fiancé is depicted as a nice guy rather than the usual boorish caricature endemic to such romantic comedies.)
Inevitably, The Park Bench concentrates on the romantic feelings that develop between the central figures, with their vastly different backgrounds adding a cultural frisson to their mutual attraction. But while the two leads are appealing and display an undeniable chemistry, the narrative skimpiness makes their efforts for naught. That we never truly care whether or not the main characters will wind up together is a fatal flaw in a film that depends on exactly that.
Production: Angel Powers Productions, Cake & Ice Cream Productions
Cast: Walter Perez, Nicole Hayden, Stella Maeve, John Prosky, Brian Mulligan, Dustin Fitzsimons
Director/screenwriter: Ann LeSchander
Producers: Ann LeSchander, Angel Thompson, Walter Perez
Director of photography: Gareth Taylor
Editor: Robert McFalls
Composer: Dan Raziel
Casting: Amey Rene Morris
Not rated, 78 min.
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