78: Mamitas (LAFF 2011)

wri-dir. Nicholas Ozeki, USA, 2011, 110 mins

(This year’s Los Angeles Film Festival may have drawn to a close, but I have a steady backlog of entries to work through…)

At times, Mamitas (the feature debut of writer-director Nicholas Ozeki) doesn’t know what it wants to be: parts of it are teenage romance replete with sizzling repartee, before it segues into family drama about questions of personal identity, and there are hints throughout of an analytical, ethnographic lens, only half-deployed. But this kind of instability feels right for the piece, a coming-of-age story following Jordin Juarez  (E.J. Bonilla), a delinquent high school kid growing up in East Los Angeles. When we’re first introduced to him, he seems to tread a familiar path: a brash, self-styled ladies’ man rebelling against both parental and scholastic authority. But Ozeki takes time to peel back those layers, and when Jordin runs into Felipa (Veronica Diaz), a studious and cynical transplant from New York, the first hints of the depth of this character piece begin to emerge.

(Disclosure: I am socially acquainted with some of the people involved in this production. I also offered notes on an early draft of the script, though I’m unaware if they fell on anyone’s ears.)

(Oh, and an aside: While Felipa wears specs as a signifier of her “dowdy egghead” status, as a glasses partisan I have to give the film points for showing — despite Dorothy Parker — that passes can be made at those that wear them.)

There is a driving force to the plot — Jordin finds a memento that puts him on the path of investigating his enigmatic mother, who died in childbirth — but Mamitas is leisurely in getting there, preferring to slowly build on Jordin’s dynamic with Felipa and his relationship with his ailing grandfather Ramon (Pedro Armendariz, Jr.). At times this looseness seems unpolished but otherwise feels organic; the core conflict doesn’t dominate everything because at that age, everything feels like a core conflict. Events don’t proceed in a clean arc; sometimes things are forgotten, or you give up and try again later. Considering its focus on the large yet mostly cinematically-invisible Latino culture in Los Angeles, the novelistic, observational approach works.

But this film is not a sociological document; it leans on emotion rather than analysis, and while there is an air of authority helped along by the unobtrusive camera work, the film knows its heart is in the classic Bildungsroman. A boy becomes a man, and there is revelation, heartbreak, and struggle intimately intertwined with that journey. While there may be third-act problems where the film struggles to find its ending, we’re nonetheless buoyed along by the work of not only the able supporting cast (Joaquim de Almeida sketches the outsized personality and troubled history of his Professor Viera in but a handful of scenes), but especially in the rapport between Bonilla and Diaz. At its highest points their interplay feels like an ethereal Hollywood archetype distilled into a unique cultural container. When the film doesn’t know what to do with them, it suffers, but those moments are mercifully sparse.