I wrote this piece in 1998/1999. The low-budget film Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) is now considered a cult film. Although the film is 20 years old, the message of the film still rings true. It’s a very refreshing film to watch, and is highly recommended. The “Rotten Tomatoes” critics gave the film a rating of 80%.
The Travails of Adolescence
Are there such things as ”personal” films? In a seminar on Film Directing at the recently concluded CineManila Film Festival, a participant asked a panel of directors to comment on some film critics’ accusation that most films shown in Cannes and other film festivals are of the “personal” variety and do not care about the audience. The panel members gave varied answers but veteran scriptwriter Ricky Lee, who was in the audience, opined that all films are personal.
At the CineManila Film Festival, some critics would probably assail the organizers for showing mostly “personal” films. Cine Manila aims to promote independent or alternative cinema to Philippine audience. It also hopes to encourage the entry of new, not necessarily young, filmmakers. In short, it wishes to be another Sundance Film Festival.
One of the films shown was Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) by Sundance Institute alumna Tamara Jenkins. Since it was her first feature film, Mr. Sundance himself, Robert Redford, signed in as Executive Producer to give her moral support.
Ms. Jenkins, the film’s writer / director, borrowed most of the material from her own life. She grew up in a dysfunctional family in a rather stressful decade (the ’70’s) at the fringes of the bourgeois capital of the world.
The story is simple. Everyone goes through the seemingly interminable rites of passage during adolescence — physical changes like body hair, pimples, menstruation, sudden increase in height or build, change in vocal pitch, etc. For the film’s main protagonist, her main concern was the sudden enlargement of her mammaries to cup-size C. Her father and brothers thus described her as “stacked”.
The acting is great. In fact, the film leans heavily on the performances of its cast, a very dangerous position from a director’s point of view. Natasha Lyonne, who plays the bosomy 14-year old Vivian, already has a string of films to her credit including the Richard Dreyfus-starrer, Kippendorf’s Tribe, and Woody Allen’s musical, Everybody Says I Love You. Lyonne’s acting had the perfect combination of stoicism and vulnerability. She was able to express how an adolescent with a fast-blossoming chest must have felt living with a father and two brothers in cramped one-bedroom apartment, especially during those times when sex and joints (marijuana) were hip and anything else was straight or plastic. And she did it without sentimentality or dramatics.
Lyonne was supported by a great cast ensemble led by veteran actor Alan Arkin and Marisa Tomei. Arkin was his usual self as Murray Abramowitz, the 65-year old father of two teenagers and a pre-teener. A comedian known for his under-acting (a rarity in Philippine cinema), Arkin was perfect for the role of an aging over-the-hill salesman who desperately wanted his children to get a good education in spite of his dire circumstances (or so he claims) –(“Forget the furniture. Furnitures are temporary. Education is permanent”.) Like veritable nomads, they move from one apartment to another every three months (to avoid the following month’s rent) but remain within the confines of Beverly Hills (so as to belong to a good school district.)
Marissa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny) returns to comedy in this film as Vivian’s 29-
year old cousin Rita, who just escaped from a drug rehab center. Her presence was the high point in the life of Vivian’s family as they were able to move to a posh condominium courtesy of Rita’s father (Carl Reiner), Murray’s elder brother. Her presence also provided a lot more comic situations.
Kevin Corrigan as Eliot, Vivian’s love interest was a credible ’70s bum who idolized Charles Manson and “quit school to join the workforce”, i.e., be a dope pusher.
The film succeeds in conveying the idea that there comes a time in one’s life when one wakes up to reality, does not like what he/she sees but must just grin and bear it and hope for the best. The script is loose but concise; the pace is normal, not dragging. It shows the pains of growing up without the sentimentality (inherent in Philippine and many Hollywood films) and it is full of humor. It appears that Ms. Jenkins’s first try at feature filmmaking was a success, at least in terms of quality and the Sundance Institute’s ideals.
Is this film personal? One critic, Maureen Callahan, practically said so. She complained, “it’s understandable that Jenkins wanted to depict the era in which she, too, came of age, but it just seems like more gimmickry, as though she presumed her audience would be won over by similar feelings of nostalgia.” Ms. Callahan also assumed that the target audience was “teen to twenty-something girls and boys to show that they’re simpatico.” Ms. Callahan’s presumptions do not seem to match as teens and twenty-something’s were either not yet born or were pre-schoolers in the ’70s such that they could not possibly have any nostalgic feelings for that decade.
Jenkins chose the ’70s because it was her film, her story. As Ricky Lee said, all films are personal. He could very well add — all criticisms are personal. Slums of Beverly Hills is a very well-made film that is, like any work of art, personal yet universal.
For Filipino film-goers, Slums… is a refreshing departure from the normal Filipino or Hollywood fare. Given the same story line, the average Filipino director would have churned out either a tear-jerker or a slapstick sex-comedy; or, most probably, a combination of both.