There's a very thin line between the well-meaning and the hackneyed, the inspired and the derivative, and the American filmmaker Damian Harper crosses it more often than he'd like - or than he should - with his debut feature Los Ángeles. A German-backed drama set and shot in rural Mexico with non-professional actors that makes good use of Mr. Harper's background in anthropology, its premise and slice-of-life, casually documentary approach to his subject gets lost in predictable narrative stereotyping - and it's a shame, because a little less formatting would take it a much longer way.
At heart, Los Ángeles deals with the gradual loss of community spirit in the remote Oaxaca village of Santa Ana del Valle, as the younger generations migrate North to the US and return drenched in the more alien American culture, and especially in the gangland ethos that is the new signifier of power and patriarchy. While the elders have a hard time just surviving, even with the money sent from the States by immigrant relatives, the youngsters align themselves in brutal gang games that are the new coming-of-age rituals.
Mr. Harper follows a couple of stories that intertwine the locals who have never left and the immigrants who returned, using as its anchor the teenage Mateo (Mateo Bautista Matias), who is to be the next breadwinner for the family once he is sent to the US to work; his opposite number is Daniel (Daniel Bautista), a particularly irresponsible young thug flirting with Mateo's half-sister. The American misdemeanors of some of the gang-affiliated locals ripple back to the village, with predictably dangerous results, and in that process Los Ángeles loses the certain flair it had in its early going.
The opening minutes suggest a film that vividly records the actors' unadorned performances and the reality of the location, but as Mr. Harper introduces more and more culture-clash tropes the film suddenly becomes too much of another "teens-in-trouble" gangland film, only against a slightly more exotic backdrop; its gentle and thoughtful meditation on cultural contamination becomes a fully-fledged, and rather tiresome, morality tale.
Cast Mateo Bautista Matias, Lidia García, Marcos Rodríguez Ruiz, Daniel Bautista, Valentina Ojeda, Donaciano Bautista Matias
Director and screenwriter Damian John Harper; cinematography Friede Clausz (colour, widescreen); composer Gregor Bonse; designer Adán Hernández; costumes Abril Álamo and Felicitas Adler; editor Lorna Hoefler Steffen; producers Jonas Weydemann and Jakob D. Weydemann; production company Weydemann Bros. in association with Cine Plus Filmproduktion and ZDF das kleine Fernsehspiel
Screened April 17th 2014, Lisbon (IndieLisboa 2014 official selection advance screener)
Trailer "Los Angeles" - by Damian John Harper from Weydemann Bros. on Vimeo.