Sidekicks in the Spotlight at LA Film Fest

Well, the 2015 LA Film Fest came to a close yesterday, which means traffic around L.A. Live should get marginally better as long as Obama doesn't decide to hold a fundraising event there. With construction cranes rising literally all around it, something tells me the festival may be sizing up soon as well. However, I have to say I always enjoy the relaxed, intimate vibe of the fest, a pleasant excuse to hang downtown in summer and catch some films that might not otherwise get the attention the deserve.

But what's really great about a festival like Film Independent's baby is that it gives venues to performers and performances who deserve a little spotlight now and then, even if all we want to see on Netflix these days is Brad Pitt. There are all kinds of films that not only studios, but even the major indie players don't support, specifically films that give actors you know without knowing you know, a chance to fly. Take Amy Hargreaves for example. She's best known for her role as Maggie Mathison on Homeland, but she's a veteran who's always lurking about in the wings in prestige films like Michael Clayton and Shame, occasionally getting more of the limelight as in last year's great indie thriller Blue Ruin. This year, the LA Film Festival afforded her center stage in Marc Meyer's How He Fell in Love, a restrained drama about infidelity told without the melodramatic fanfare one comes to expect.

Hargreaves plays Ellen, a married yoga instructor who starts an affair with Travis, an itinerant musician she meets at a New Jersey wedding (Orange Is The New Black's Matt McGorry). Of course, she's "never done anything" like this, but the slow burn romance opens up lost dreams and long-shuttered desires in her studiously balanced persona. All that hard fought composure she's earned as a yoga instructor quickly crumbles as her repressed marital woes bubble to the surface. Although the story unfolds ostensibly from Travis' perspective, the subtly wrought interior life Hargreaves instills her character with holds your gaze throughout. (Veteran character actor Mark Blum also shines as her staid but vulnerable older husband.) That Travis is something of an emotionally dim-witted man child only accentuates the poignant marital ruin that has led Ellen to the affair. In fact, one wishes the movie would leave Travis' POV behind in favor of Ellen's because Hargreaves makes even the small-scale drama of this minor affair absorbing and complex. Hopefully, someone influential catches Hargreaves' performance somehow (Netflix I suppose?) because she's a gem of an actor who you feel could bring a vibrant humanity to any role whatsoever.

I've also long been a fan of Luis Guzman, Hollywood's Puerto Rican side-kick par excellence who finally gets something of a leading role in Puerto Ricans in Paris. You've absolutely seen Guzman, whether as a crooked cop, a cartel thug, or in P.T. Anderson's Boogie Nights (a director who knows a thing or two about brilliant character actors) as desperate club owner Maurice. Puerto Ricans in Paris is essentially the kind of silly studio comedy that studios would make if they made movies that actually represented America's 21st century demographics. Guzman plays Luis who, along with his partner Eddie (Edgar Garcia) busts New York's counterfeit designer bag dealers with effortless flair. They're your typical macho Nuyoricans who get tasked to help a celebrity Parisian bag designer figure out who among her friends has stolen her latest hot-hot-hot design and is holding it for $1 million euros ransom. Implausible, sure. And the script is somewhat rote in going through the genre beats. But Guzman brings it to life with unrestrained brio, as does Edgar Garcia, adding genuine heart. Sure, Puerto Ricans in Paris would love nothing more than to be a dumb studio comedy, but if dumb studio comedies were as unabashed as this, maybe we wouldn't complain about them so much? The movies' one unforgivable sin is managing a casting coup with Rosie Perez and Rosario Dawson as Eddie's and Luis' respective flames but leaving them behind in New York -- away from the action. You want nothing more than to see Perez, Dawson, Guzman and Garcia given the opportunity to go at it classic-screwball style in a fleshed out story worthy of their talents.

Who knows, maybe one day someone else will take that bright idea and run with it. Until now we have venues like the LA Film Fest whose greatest unappreciated virtue is that they know how to spread the spotlight around.