‘Ovarian Psycos’: SXSW Review

Courtesy of Sylvia Frances Films
Compelling portraits in grass-roots inspiration and female strength.

A debut documentary profiles a Latina bicycle brigade that’s putting its feminist ideals in motion.

For the women of the Ovarian Psycos Bicycle Brigade, riding through the streets of Los Angeles is an act of guerrilla theater, bandanas optional. Taking back the night — and, on tough and disapproving turf, the daytime streets as well — they’ve staked their place in the riot grrrl lineage and are direct descendants of the feminist and Chicano movements of the ’60s and ’70s.

A concise and intimate documentary on the collective illuminates why they find solace as well as purpose in their DIY activism. Many of these tough pedalers are self-described “at-risk adults,” still pushing against the undertow of abuse and trauma.

As a portrait of the group, Ovarian Psycos, which takes its bow in the Documentary Feature Competition at South by Southwest, is incisively personal rather than all-encompassing. It showcases compelling characters and, at its most potent, explores complex territory between mothers and daughters, tradition and independence. The film is a natural for doc platforms with a political edge.

First-time feature directors Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle focus on three Ovas, as they call themselves, in the predominantly Mexican-American neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and East L.A., so near and yet so far from the power and money of downtown.

There’s a poetic ferocity to all the women’s language as they talk to the filmmakers about the group’s significance for them and their community. Self-described “f---ups,” cholas and punks, they’re thoughtful, compassionate and deeply intelligent — beginning with Xela de la X, the poet/performer who founded the brigade, setting out to build “a refuge for the runaway, for the throwaway.”

Per the Ovas’ manifesto, they’re “cycling for the purpose of healing our communities physically, emotionally and spiritually.” And though the film shows that they’re still working out precisely what that means, at times it feels frustratingly short of specifics in terms of the group’s projects and coalition-building initiatives. But the personal is political, and through their take-no-prisoners visibility on rides to raise consciousness against domestic violence, to celebrate the full moon, or to achieve “Clitoral Mass,” as one of their signature events is dubbed, the women are self-determination personified.

They’re also breaking cultural taboos. Some of their mothers wish they would embrace more “feminine” pursuits, among them new recruit Evie’s Salvadoran mother, who struggles to pay the bills as a cleaner of office buildings. She wants her daughter to have a better life, and doesn’t see how riding a bike can help to achieve that goal.

The third central figure, artist Andi Xoch, has just about given up on communicating her interests and passions to her family — almost but not quite, as an emotional moment late in the doc reveals. An original member of the group, she crafts gender-forward designs that are essential to the Psycos’ identity. She’s keenly attuned to the area’s historic murals and their importance to the Chicano civil rights movement.

That sense of continued struggle and of political legacy fuels the Ovas and, to a considerable extent, the film. Among the well-chosen archival material that the directors weave into the mix are clips from 1970s documentaries about the movement and the lives of Chicanas. But as founder Xela stresses, there are destructive inheritances too. The difference between indigenous culture in the Americas and the reality that she and many others grew up in — what she calls the “post-colonized traditional Mexican household” — constitutes a chasm. In her case, it’s one that has had devastating repercussions.

The abuse that haunts her, and her mother’s harrowing betrayal, are fully felt in a succinct sequence involving a visit to her childhood home. Cinematographer Michael Raines gets in close without feeling intrusive; throughout the film, he and the directors are in sync with interpersonal dynamics and a sense of place.

That Xela works at a youth counseling center and is raising a daughter who feels protected — precisely what Xela wasn’t — epitomizes the kind of conscious, engaged living that the Ovas represent, and that Sokolowski and Trumbull-LaValle have chronicled with insight and energy.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Production companies: Sylvia Frances Films

Directors-producers: Joanna Sokolowski, Kate Trumbull-LaValle
Director of photography: Michael Raines
Editor: Victoria Chalk
Composer: Jimmy LaValle

Not rated, 72 minutes