This weekend I had the chance to watch Mike Ott’s trilogy about life in small-town desert towns north and east of L.A. The three films are Little Rock (2010), Pear blossom Hwy (2012), and the best of the lot, Lake Los Angeles (2014). Though all three films use the same actors, only the first two center on teenagers Atsuko and Cory (played by Ott’s co-writer, Atsuko Okatsuka, and actor Cory Lawler, respectively). As a study of teenage wasteland with the lost-hope twist foisted onto Small Town, U.S.A. by neoliberalism’s morbid indifference, Little Rock, and Pear Blossom Hwy are fine films. Intentionally annoying, they track closely these young people who are going nowhere and have nowhere to go.
Lake Los Angeles is different. Starring a character who was present but backgrounded in the first two films, the Cuban laborer, Francisco (Roberto Sanchez) and a youngster new to the trilogy, Cecelia (Johanna Trujillo), this film nails the texture and tonality of a poverty and precarity wrought by the cruel and greedy economic scaffolding of our country. The expansive long shots of the merciless desert; the hazy, smoky, foggy shots that close around Franciscolike a shroud; the silent night-time scenes in abandoned homes where Cecilia finds unstable shelter–these do not simply express an inner despair but also underscore and exemplify structural isolation. They instantiate Francisco’s inability to be the man he was in Havanna and Cecilia’s inability to be the little girl she was with her Mommy in Mexico. Their shared lack of English, money, and a green card renders them each, differently, invisible and illegible to American society.
This is an invisibility and illegibility that doesn’t even make it to the level of micro-aggression. Francisco seems to fold into his cigarette and the haze around him. Cecilia befriends a dog she named Panchito and whispers stories of her life to an old Sailor Man inside a snow-globe.
Francisco will work at anything. We see him cleaning out houses scheduled for demolition, shoveling horse manure, and doing yard work for a wealthy suburbanite. He also assists Adria (Eloy Méndez) shelter undocumented Mexicans until he can gather enough money from their U.S. contacts. Each time Francisco and Adria meet, Francisco anxiously tells him it’s too many people, or they’ve stayed too long, or he doesn’t have enough food to feed them. He seems unwilling to do this work but does it for the money he sends back to Cuba for his wife and two sons. Cecilia stands out to him because she arrives with no other family. She is supposed to meet her father–or that is the story Adria tells Francisco.
Francisco calls her kitten and worries over her. We viewers do too.
The film is the story of their lives and families, mostly as they are lived in loss and disjunction, in heartbreak and barely missed violence. Ott succeeds in conveying the grain of “this part that has no part,” as Rancière would say, because the camerawork is patient, the tonal palette is somber and just varying enough, and because the soundtrack is not overdone.
One moment remains with me. Francisco asks his suburban boss if he can go inside the house to use the bathroom. Sure, you know the way, the white man replies. But instead of the bathroom, we see Francisco pace slowly around the living room, looking at the paintings and photographs and art objects. He sidles up to the piano and plays a few notes with one hand, pressing just three or four keys. “I’m still in here,” he says softly to himself before his boss calls to him to come back to work. “Estoy aqui, boss,” he calls.
I’m still in here; I’m here. The split is rendered perfectly, and so subtley you might miss it. But it’s that moment, in the bright light and green lawn of suburban America, that I best understood the darkness, haze, and emptiness of the rest of the film.