Childhood misery is often mitigated by the secret hope that someday grown-up life will be better; the adult variety is far more depressing. Two new independent features bear out this description. El Bola, by Spanish writer and director Achero Mañas, marks the debut release of Film Movement, a distribution system that makes first-run theatrical features available on DVD to home subscribers. The film focuses on 12-year-old Pablo (Juan José Ballesta), whose nickname, “El Bola,” meaning pellet, may refer either to the little ball he carries in his pocket, or to his tightly wound personality. Between long school days and the dour evenings he spends with his abusive father (Manuel Morón), cowering mother, and incontinent grandmother, Pablo occasionally escapes to the railroad tracks, where he plays a perilous game of “chicken” with classmates. One day he befriends Alfredo (Pablo Galán), a new boy at school. Alfredo’s hipster dad (Alberto Jiménez) runs a tattoo parlor, yet exudes an air of strict but loving paternal authority. The boys’ growing friendship, combined with the differences between their two families, builds to a startling confrontation.
Using a straightforward visual style, Mañas fixes our attention on the human drama of abuse and its manifold effects upon the child. Ballesta, as Pablo, is both tough and fearful—open to the joy he so sorely misses, yet bound to the father who beats him. Morón conveys the brittle veneer of social charm that camouflages a man of violent temper, making the warmth of Alfredo’s family appear all the more genuine. At once subtle and visceral, the film never succumbs to the trap of the maudlin or tearful, offering instead with its unflinching gaze a measure of faith in the future.
Optimism is no by-product of The Jimmy Show—director, co-writer, and actor Frank Whaley’s skillful if resolutely gloomy portrait of a guy who just can’t win. Whaley stars as Jimmy O’Brien, who lives with his cute wife (Carla Gugino), invalid grandmother (Lynn Cohen), and little daughter in a working-class New Jersey suburb. Along with his pothead buddy Ray (Ethan Hawke), Jimmy stocks shelves at the local supermarket, where he filches cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon and dreams of making it as a stand-up comic.
Unfortunately, though he persistently pursues his art, Jimmy seems to have little comic talent. Once a week, he tries out his routine in low-rent clubs along a forgotten stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike. Though he does manage to wittily excoriate some beefy hecklers, his monologues, which start with a few lame jokes, devolve into personal revelations about his failing marriage and his series of increasingly dead-end jobs.
Backed by a strong supporting cast, Whaley makes Jimmy a vivid character, but he never achieves anything like the tragic grandeur of a Willy Loman. He’s at once too earnest and too unappealing. There’s an admirable rigor to Jimmy’s relentless anger, and to the script’s refusal of a happy ending, but as those monologues stretch on and on, you realize there’s no place for this story to go but down.