With Lake Los Angeles director/writer Mike Ott presents a heart-rending but placid portrait of the often solitary pain of the undocumented immigrant. Ott effectively uses a quiet, low-key cinematic delivery that creeps up on the viewer for a simple, devastating finale that raises small gestures to noble acts of kindness and may just redeem humanity in the face of a harsh, often lonely life.
Ott approaches the script, which he co-wrote with Atsuko Okatsuka, his collaborator on his two prior films, with a deliberate patience. Lake Los Angeles is the final installment in the loosely connected "Antelope Valley Trilogy." Atmosphere is key to the film. It's established early on as the camera rushes across a nocturnal desert landscape as billows of dust and smoke zoom past in the periphery. A child's voice whispers the Aztec myth about "The Rabbit in the Moon," as the humming drone of ambient music by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (of the Icelandic band Amiina and a collaborator of Sigur Ros and Spirtiualized) swells underneath the surreal imagery. It ends with the abstract image of that rabbit, who sacrifices itself to feed a hungry traveler, coming into focus on the surface of the actual moon. It makes for a sublime opening that reflects the film's simple style, which builds toward the film's powerfully rewarding yet subtle finale.
Lake Los Angeles is about the thin but resilient connection between two disparate people bonded by their isolation after being separated from their family. A 10-year-old Mexican girl, Cecilia (Johanna Trujillo), hopes to connect with a father she never met. Francisco (Roberto "Sanz" Sanchez) is a middle-aged Cuban man in charge of watching over migrants in a derelict house, hidden off the beaten path. He grows connected to Cecilia, as she silently waits at this makeshift way station for her father as several nights pass and others in her smuggled group gradually trickle away.
When they are inevitably separated, the film spends time with each as travelers alone with their thoughts. The performances become off-screen monologues and silent faces. She dwells on children's stories, speaks to a figurine of an old sailor trapped in a snow globe and wonders where her mother and father might be. He waxes nostalgic about early days of romance with his wife, how his children might be growing, and regrets of leaving them in Cuba.
It's a rather still movie, sometimes languorous, but it harnesses the power to make a point that is both simple and raw and taps into an emotional connection that is not set-up with manipulative plot contrivances. The Cecilia and Francisco are left to tangle with the mundane. Sometimes it feels repetitious, but nothing can ever become routine for these people. The film's seeming monotony is inevitably disrupted, effectively setting up the random chaos these people must deal with from one day to the next.
Lake Los Angeles is for the patient viewer, but the reward at the end will hit you like a ton of bricks. That the gesture by film's end feels so slight and never overwrought speaks to Ott's skill at inducing empathy from the viewer. It's a rewarding film that speaks to the strength of restrained filmmaking that has deep compassion for its characters.
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Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.