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There's an old show-business maxim that as soon as you stop chasing your big break, it chases you. Such is the dilemma faced by Lena Machado, the titular character in Lena's Dreams, an edgy independent feature from the writing/directing team of Heather Johnson and Gordon Eriksen. Set in the gritty unglamorous world of struggling actors in New York, this film examines what Hollywood movies rarely talk about: the price paid not only for chasing success, but for achieving it.
On the morning of her 32nd birthday, Lena (Marlene Forte), a Cuban-American actress, is at the end of her tether: broke, disappointed, and very frustrated. Lena has had it with her endless round of short-term acting gigs, long-term poverty, and dreams of greatness that never seem to lead to wealth, fame, or, most important, a real life. After a morning spat with her long-time live-in Latin boyfriend Mike (Gary Perez), a hapless wannabe director, Lena finally snaps, prompting her to dump him as well as her so-called career. She berates a smug director for stereotyping her as a Latina, fires her manipulative manager, throws away her headshots, and cancels her phone service. Later in the day, after burning all her bridges, she discovers she had been offered the biggest role of her career, the female lead in a Broadway production called Castro.
Her show-biz pals are aghast at her rashness and beg her to try to get the job back. But Lena balks, unsure of what she wants anymore. Is walking away from her old life an act of liberation or self-destruction? She seeks out her girlfriends, hoping they can offer some insights. Her wealthy ex-actress friend Suze (Susan Peirez) lives the good life on Long Island but faces divorce and loneliness and misses her glitzier days. Another girlfriend, sitcom star Angela (Kai Adwoa), has all the trappings of minor-league stardom, including lame scripts and a serious drinking problem. Searching for answers, Lena finds more questions.
Working with a shoestring budget and severe technical limitations, Johnston and Eriksen don't try to out-Hollywood Hollywood in their plaintive tale. The story plays out in battered apartments and on the chaotic streets of Manhattan, a real-world setting that serves up a much more honest and vital New York than most studio films manage. The two wisely opt to go with their strongest suit, their actors, allowing the cast to work through entire scenes in single takes. And the understated musical score by Don Braden adds a bluesy, contemplative feel to the film, a welcome contrast to the tedious and rampant practice of using music to manipulate audience emotions.
Director of photography Armand Basulto uses a freewheeling hand-held style of shooting on 16mm color and black-and-white film, which, though most likely the result of budget limitations, certainly helps the docudrama feel. But some overused gimmicks, such as sudden zoom-ins and unnecessary back-and-forth pan shots, soon become annoying and distracting. And no manner of cinematographic pyrotechnics can mask the serious script problems in the second half of the film, which squanders a lot of its early energy and pace on talky, predictable scenes that should have been worked over in the script stage. A notable letdown is Lena's delayed romantic showdown with Mike, a nighttime face-off atop their apartment building that doesn't achieve the emotional impact it apparently aims for.
Despite these drawbacks Lena's Dreams succeeds in revealing the underbelly of Broadway aspirations. The no-budget, no-name production fits neatly in the world it depicts, which explains in part its truthful, authentic feel. Certainly the cast must identify with the story line: According to the press release, one member was voted "Waitress of the Year," while another holds down a day job as a policeman in Times Square. But the actors' relative anonymity should not be a judgment. This is a very well-cast and -acted film. The performances of Peirez and Adwoa as Lena's gal pals are strong, as are Jeremiah Birkett's funny turn as a roguish Lothario and Judy Reyes as Lena's younger rival for those scarce Latina roles.
At the center of everything is Forte, whose Lena is a cyclone of contradictions, the sort of deeply conflicted, self-sabotaging heroine that long fascinated John Cassavetes, the legendary filmmaker whose screenplays and shooting style clearly inspire this film. Forte delivers a courageous, white-hot performance that's an acting lesson in itself, one that Hollywood's shtick-addicted starlets would do well to study. But Forte's triumph is Lena's irony. Whether or not she takes that Broadway job, the best role she'll ever play is herself.
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