The LAFF's Summer Showcase section is mostly a perch for films that premiered at other festivals and have already secured distribution, resulting in a healthy mix of docs and fiction features coming, by and large, from Sundance and South by Southwest. The most exciting entry in this year's Showcase is the local premiere of Gimme the Loot, which won the main jury prize at SXSW and screened at last month's Cannes Film Festival.
This uniquely fresh, energetic, affectionate and downright huggable debut feature by writer-director Adam Leon follows two Bronx teenagers over a couple hot summer days. Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) are young graffiti writers who are dismayed to find their recent work painted over by a rival team. Hatching a plan to "bomb the apple" — that is, tag the home-run symbol at Shea Stadium, which Sofia willfully refuses to call by its current, corporate-branded name — the pair sets off on a series of adventures, a goofball roll call of failed scams and schemes to raise the $500 they need to make it happen.
Loot is not the gritty-in-quotation-marks urban movie the story might imply. Instead, Leon transforms the city into an innocently knockabout playground, the bodegas, pizza places, weed slingers and turnstyle-jumping of this world as seemingly bucolic as Mayberry R.F.D. Rather than setting his story against the bracing, thugged-out contemporary rap one might expect, Leon uses a soundtrack of vintage, gospel-inflected R&B to add a timeless flair.
There is a propulsive rambunctiousness to the film's construction, Leon exhibiting a sure sense of tone in knowing when to momentarily turn serious or heartfelt. The repeated image of Malcolm walking through the city in his socks, having lost his shoes along the way, typifies the film's sly blend of the tender and the comic
Though a native New Yorker, Leon is nevertheless a relatively upscale white kid; thus, while his portrait of an African-American urban experience may at first seem like fresh bait for the Representation Police, the film's wide-eyed exuberance finds a balance between a playful sense of hope and a more worldly awareness. The substory of Malcolm's crush on and subsequent disillusionment with a rich white girl to whom he delivers pot easily could be the missing "diversity" story many have clamored for from HBO's Girls, albeit told from the other side.
Anyone questioning Leon's authenticity may find their dismissals complicated by the fact that, in postscreening Q&As, Hickson and Washington turn up looking like, respectively, a dapper nouveau-preppy and a fashion-forward bombshell, no more the scruffy street ragamuffin than Leon. It is, after all, fiction, people.
One of only two films in the Summer Showcase making its world premiere at LAFF, People Like Us is the feature directing debut of big-time Hollywood action screenwriter Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Star Trek). This light drama about an adult man (Chris Pine) meeting a half-sister (Elizabeth Banks) he never knew existed is inspired by events in Kurtzman's life. Studio-backed dramas based on original material about actual humans are becoming an endangered species outside the narrow window of awards season, which makes one more forgiving of the film's laid-back, ersatz–Cameron Crowe vibe.
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Of the several Showcase selections assaying the lives of contemporary Angelenos, the best is Celeste and Jesse Forever. Starring and co-written by Rashida Jones, this feature from director Lee Toland Krieger captures well the rhythms of life among the city's upscale, boho creative class, the free afternoons and free-floating anxieties. Jones plays a woman forced to re-evaluate herself after her marriage breaks apart, a process not made any easier by the fact that her ex (Andy Samberg) continues to live in her back house.
Sitcom second banana Jones breaks free of her straight-man straitjacket to bring supple, delicate nuance to her performance, conveying a sense of inner life and the incremental moments that add up to a person's realization of their need for change.
Many of the Summer Showcase films feature bigger names in smaller movies, looking to get a boost from a little star power. Robot and Frank is a strange contraption of a movie, a sort-of sci-fi tale set in the near future. An elderly man (Frank Langella) is given a service robot by his family to help around the house. Though initially he is wary, man and machine grow close. That there is a jewelry heist at the center of the story helps keep it from sagging into the sappy, cross-generational heartstring tugger it often threatens to be. Jake Schreier's detached, observant direction counterintuitively brings out the warmth in Christopher D. Ford's script, a story of friendship, technology and lives in transition.
A surprise charmer that might be easy to overlook, Robot and Frank is just the kind of film apt to best benefit from the festival's Showcase spotlight.