GIRLS N THE HOOD

Allison Anders' first solo directing credit, Gas, Food, Lodging, about a single woman raising two daughters in a small Southwestern town, was overrated. It was pretty to look at, but dramatically thin and clich‚. Her new film, Mi Vida Loca, is even better to look at, and it has a potent, muscular narrative, as well. In spite of some minor flaws, it represents a major improvement for Anders. Mi Vida Loca--which translates as My Crazy Life--is a study of female gang bangers in L.A.'s Echo Park. Anders lives there, and was inspired to make the film by the "homegirls" she saw in the streets. The script, which she wrote, draws on the experiences of these women, and thus is packed with sociological detail--with the nuts and bolts of how the gang culture perpetuates itself.

In spite of the urgency with which this material is presented, Mi Vida Loca is not, and is not meant to be, a ramble through documentary-style naturalism. Visually, the film has the same sort of heady, leisurely lyricism as the best of Gas, Food, Lodging, and the plot is full of melodramatic twists--or rather, the plots are, for there are three of them, loosely related and presented consecutively. The storytelling is clever without being merely tricky, and though there is some unwieldiness to Anders' attempts to integrate the triple plotline into a dovetailing finish, one is grateful for its variety and audacity and freedom from depressing predictability.

Part one revolves around Sad Girl (Angel Aviles) and Mousie (Seidy Lopez), friends since childhood who become enemies when they each have a child by the same man, Ernesto (Jacob Vargas). In part two, Giggles (the gorgeous Marlo Marron), who took a rap for her boyfriend years earlier, is released from prison disillusioned with men and determined to make a better life for herself and her daughter. Part three concerns Sad Girl's sister, La Blue Eyes (Magali Alvarado), who's a college student and not a gang banger, but who falls desperately in love via correspondence with a convict in prison. The linking device of the three parts is Ernesto's customized pickup truck. The well-publicized participation of a number of real gang bangers is no doubt intended to lend the film credibility as a document, and perhaps it does so. There's a trade-off for this, however. Several of the gang bangers appear in acting roles--notably, Nelida Lopez as the aptly nicknamed Whisper--and while they are fine camera subjects, their inexperience is painfully evident when they're shoulder to shoulder with professional actresses (the four named above, among others) of uniform excellence and personability. Other complaints could be made about Mi Vida Loca--some passages in the dialogue, especially Giggles' lectures to her friends, have a stilted, afterschool-special ring, and there are shifts in viewpoint that are momentarily disorienting. But for each glitch, there is a balancing felicity, a scene or a moment that's fresh and unexpected, like Giggles' sad, awkward conversation with a panhandler (Danny Trejo) she recognizes as a friend from her preprison days. There's a paradoxical tension that rises out of the relationship between Mi Vida Loca's subject matter and Anders' sensibilities. She can't help but be impressed by these women (nor can we) because of their gutsiness and self-assertion and camaraderie in the male-dominated gang world, yet she comes perilously close to forgetting that what these sisters are doing for themselves is still drug dealing and murder. Anders nearly blows her game in the film's final moments, when she has her narrator make a distinction between the male and female gang-banging ethos--a woman, she says, doesn't use a weapon "to prove a point" but, rather, "for love." Whatever. Bullet holes in bodies are bullet holes in bodies. But Anders catches herself, and grafts a final, arbitrary shocker onto the end of the film to shatter this queasy romanticism. It's ham-fisted, but ham-fisted honesty beats slick sentimentality any day.

 
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