USA (103 mi) 2012 ‘Scope d: Sean Baker
This is an unusual and somewhat mysterious examination of the banality and utter vacuousness of both the elderly and young twentysomethings while living in the San Fernando Valley, which never looked more rampantly oppressive. Opening with an exquisite musical theme by Manual that recurs throughout, as we quickly see blank yellow walls, where a blond head slowly rises on the edge of the screen, the film is seen through the breezy eyes of a 21-year old blond, Jane (Dree Hemingway, the daughter of actress Mariel Hemingway), a scantily clad girl apparently with too much time on her hands, as she spends a good deal of it getting high or playing video games with her roommates, where together they comprise an updated Three’s Company (1976 – 1984) glimpse of what it means to be total airheads in the 21st century, as anything resembling thoughts rarely come out of anyone’s heads, where one suspects they will quickly grow tiresome, as almost immediately they hold little interest whatsoever. It’s Jane’s pet Chihuahua dog that is named Scarlet, a well mannered dog that she takes everywhere, sleeping away most of *his* life, much like his master. When Jane picks up a few odds and ends at yard sales to decorate her otherwise empty room, one of the items purchased is a thermos, which she plans to use as a flower vase, but inside she discovers wads of cash money totaling $10,000, which she figures is actually something worth thinking about. Returning to the scene of the crime where she bought it, the cantankerous old lady that sold it to her, 85-year old Sadie, Besedka Johnson, a remarkable first-time unprofessional actress, and easily the most natural presence onscreen, slams the door in her face before she can utter a word.
After going on an instant shopping spree for herself and her dog, helping out the aggressively obnoxious roommates downstairs, Stella Maeve as Melissa and James Ransone as Mikey, both regular pill poppers whose adrenaline is always a little over-amped, calmed down by pot smoking, but both are a nervous wreck most of the time who always find themselves in desperate financial straits. Jane finds a way to accidentally run into Sadie, by paying off her waiting cab at the grocery store and pulling up in her own car, acting neighborly. The trouble is, Sadie’s been around the block once or twice and she smells a scam when she sees one. But Jane is kind of a naïve, happy go lucky Ana Faris style girl whose good looks get her through every situation in life, where people will literally step over one another to try to get into position to help her. Understanding this since about the age of 6, she fully utilizes this kind of attention to her full advantage, wearing barely there Daisy Mae outfits that have all eyes devouring her. Despite this social phenomena, she simply ignores it most of the time and goes on about her business as if nothing of any significance was happening, constantly smiling, without a care in the world. Nothing at this point is remotely compelling to the viewer until Jane persists in running into Sadie, who actually calls the cops on her as a stalker and potential scam artist, only to discover she has no rap sheet and the police are calling her a Good Samaritan who is actually trying to help her, offering rides for free instead of having to pay cabfare. Sadie is the kind of woman who rarely gets exposure in the movies, as at that age, the elderly are invisible, out of sight, out of mind, yet she literally takes over the film. Slowly and reluctantly, a kind of friendship develops, where it seems Jane wants to mention the money, but Sadie says she has more money than she’ll ever need, as her dead husband was a gambler, and a good one who apparently left her plenty.
The side stories are completely undeveloped, but notable, where both Melissa and Jane do porn shoots on the side to earn cash, as does Mikey, who seems to think he’s Melissa’s agent as well, but Melissa has been tossed out of the business for 30 days to cool out after a violent, drug induced, temper tantrum nearly costs her a job, where Jane also works a convention circuit selling photos, hyping her merchandise, and mingling with her fans. Sadie, on the other hand, has ultra conservative neighbors who attempt to gain leverage over her by suing her, claiming injuries from falls on cracks in her sidewalk, or unflattering tree branches that reach into their yards, basically an excuse to bully an elderly lady with self-righteous talk about how she’s a danger to the neighborhood. Sadie, by some strange quirk of fate, likes the foliage as it keeps her neighbors out of view. Among the best scenes in the film are quiet and somewhat awkward moments of Sadie opening up about her life, chatting with Jane in her backyard flower garden, where we get a glimpse of an era when she wasn’t a frail elderly lady, but a woman happy to be with the guy she loved, often dreaming of Paris. Instead she spends her time at weekend bingo games, rarely winning a pot, but loves being part of the action. The two couldn’t be more different, yet the film simultaneously explores the existential emptiness in both their lives, as neither one has anyone close, where both are forced to suppress their real emotions in order to get through the forced artificiality of their working life or the dreariness of growing old alone, dealing with the onset of old age, where you have to pretend it doesn’t bother you. Nearly all color has been bleached out of these images, where despite the vacuousness of the toxic atmosphere in the Valley, there’s a quiet mystery to be found under the surface of this odd relationship, where the recurring musical refrain adds to the texture of this gentle portrait.