‘Soledad’: Film Review

4 Oak Prods.
Takes a few wrong turns around a compelling central character.

A Los Angeles limo driver forges an unlikely friendship with a high-school girl after her prom night turns disastrous.

With its intriguing loner protagonist and an eye for nighttime Los Angeles, Soledad begins with a strong dramatic setup and turns it into a two-hander that often feels contrived. The feature by first-time writer-directors Eduardo Maytorena and Wayne Mitchell isn’t without its affecting and well-observed moments, though, most of which belong to lead Jesse Celedon.

Winner of an honorable mention at the 2015 edition of Dances with Films, the movie tracks an eventful night in the life of an ex-con limo driver, focusing on his unexpected bond with a 17-year-old girl. At its strongest, Soledad offers a clear-eyed look at the economic and social divide, emblemized by the panel that separates the service provider from clients who treat him as a nonentity.

Even before he gets to use his resonant baritone voice, the burly Celedon is compelling as Victor. The dialogue-free opening sequence draws the viewer into his solitary existence: lifting weights in his small apartment, saying silent grace before eating the breakfast he’s prepared with care, boarding the Sunset Boulevard bus to work. He takes pride in the stretch limo that he drives nightly, silently enduring the disrespect of hard-partying clients who treat it like a dump.

When customer Preston (Chase Austin), a rich kid affecting a gangster swagger, tries to rape his prom date, Raquel (Montanna Gillis), in the back seat, Victor swings into immediate action as her savior and the boy’s punisher. He pulls Preston out of the car, beats him with his belt and leaves him by the side of the road. From there, he and the battered but resilient Raquel, a loner in her own gregarious way, embark on an impromptu adventure. She’s not ready to go home, and he feels protective toward her and drawn to her openness.

Their stops include a taco truck, a tattoo parlor and the underpopulated dance club that Victor frequents, site of a series of unconvincing incidents (co-director Maytorena plays the nightspot’s sleazy owner). The evening’s comings and goings don’t always make sense, and the climactic showdown with Preston and his coked-up, unhinged brother (Chris Petrovski) doesn’t deliver the intended impact, devolving into a scared-straight spiel; here and elsewhere, the screenplay is at its most inane when trying to wax profound.

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The filmmakers deliberately make laughable adversaries of the revenge-seeking brothers and the woman (Nat Leone) who sleeps with both of them. The trio’s druggie flailings are no match for the self-contained Victor, who has served seven years for an unspecified crime and been through a spiritual crucible. But while the film commendably avoids black-and-white judgments, most of the scenes that focus on Preston & Co. are draining in their off-putting theatrics.

Through it all, Roger Viloria’s cinematography captures a restless portrait of L.A., moving between familiar locations and less well-known sights in the city’s eastern stretches, with strong contributions from composer Liam O’Brien. The visit to a roller rink that caps the drama is a visually dynamic way to tie together the prom-night innocence that Raquel represents and a long-unexpressed sense of joy in Victor. The writer-directors have wisely left much of this protagonist’s backstory undefined, and Celedon has made him memorable.

Production companies: 4 Oak Prods. in association with Bergatron Music & Post and Micheltorena St. Fermentation
Cast: Jesse Celedon, Montanna Gillis, Chase Austin, Chris Petrovski, Nat Leone, Eduardo Maytorena
Directors: Eduardo Maytorena, Wayne Mitchell
Screenwriters: Eduardo Maytorena, Wayne Mitchell
Producers: Jesse Celedon, Eduardo Maytorena, Wayne Mitchell
Executive producers: Douglas Bravo, Jesse Celedon, Eduardo Maytorena, Wayne Mitchell
Director of photography: Roger Viloria
Editor: Wayne Mitchell
Composer: Liam O’Brien
Casting director: Deborah Maxwell Dion
No rating, 84 minutes