In Where We Stand: Class Matters, bell hooks argues that people with wealth sometimes have a difficult time understanding the fact that they’re wealthy because they know there are others who have more than they do.
When watching Amanda Marsalis’s feature film debut, Echo Park, it’s difficult not to think about hooks’s contention. The Echo Park neighborhood on the Eastside of Los Angeles has been facing the G-word, with predominantly working-class Latinos being displaced by hip, wealthier residents. The film sets an unlikely romance between a struggling black composer and a wealthy white woman from Beverly Hills in the quickly gentrifying enclave, mostly shrugging off light tensions around race and class when it’s not caricaturing them. Class adds a confusing element from the get-go, as the director’s perception of who’s rich and who isn’t seems skewed.
When Sophie (Mamie Gummer) pulls up in her Mercedes to buy a couch from Echo Park local Alex (Tony Okungbowa), she’s wearing casual, trendy clothes you could find at a run-of-the-mill vintage store, with no makeup and a ponytail. She doesn’t look or act much differently from Alex — even though we’re explicitly told in the dialogue that they’re worlds apart — so the tension between classes seems nonexistent. Alex, on the other hand, actually owns his Echo Park home, which means he has money, despite the movie’s failure to acknowledge it.
And then there’s Alex’s Latino friend Mateo (Maurice Compte) and his kid Elias (Ricky Rico), who are supposedly Echo Park natives but don’t know they shouldn’t lean against the trees at Elysian Park — that’s where men urinate before Dodgers games. These two also aren’t alarmed when Sophie sets up an art show in the neighborhood for Elias, a budding photographer, and mostly white people with interesting hair show up, which seems like the film’s attempt to say, “See how we all get along in our funky neighborhood?”
Outside the framing of class matters, Marsalis and screenwriter Catalina Aguilar Mastretta hit a few good notes with relationship dynamics. This is a quiet film, relying on the subtlest of looks to take us from one scene to the next. Often, Gummer and Okungbowa can achieve this in performance, as in their moments of friendly courtship — usually in bed or in Alex’s house. Mastretta’s script, meanwhile, supports the fledgling romance with simple, detailed dialogue that rings true and bittersweet.
But while Echo Park excels in its close-ups and charming, half-mumbled dialogue, the director either avoids transitions completely or bungles them with awkward long shots where we can’t even see the actors’ faces. At one point, the gang’s hanging out on the cemented portion of the L.A. River for some reason (maybe this is what working-class people do?) when Sophie delivers some bad news to Alex. Unfortunately, we’re a good thirty feet away and have no idea how Alex reacts to the news or how it’s going to drive the action into the next scene.
The music is overwhelming at times, moving from twee Volkswagen jingles to darkwave electro, invading scenes instead of adding texture when needed, so it’s a little disappointing when it blankets Okungbowa’s and Gummer’s sensitive performances — the latter, it should be stated, has somehow inherited her mother Meryl Streep’s transformative mannerisms and lightly physical acting style.
Echo Park doesn’t circumvent expectations, but it’s worth a watch for those small moments of two humans relating to each other on a realistic plane. Just don’t expect to learn anything about Echo Park, its residents, or how people deal with gentrification.
Directed by Amanda Marsalis
Opens April 15, IFC Center