Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Film: Echo Park

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Anthony Okuongbowa & Mamie Gummer in Echo Park

Who: Catalina Aguilar Mastretta, screenwriter; Amanda Marsalis, director; Anthony Okuongbowa, star & producer
What
: Romantic Indie Drama
Where: Netflix streaming & DVD
When: Released April 15, 2016
Why WatchAmanda Marsalis’s feature  film debut, which premiered at The Los Angeles Film Festival in 2014, was released in theaters by Array in April. Array is the relaunch of the African American Film Festival (AFFRM) founded in 2010 by director Ava DuVernay (who helmed the excellent Selma, famously snubbed by the Academy in both film and directing categories). An independent film distribution company, Array is now dedicated to the amplification of independent films by people of color and women filmmakers with the overall goal of varied voices and images in cinema. Echo Park, written by Mexican-American Catalina Aguilar Mastretta and directed by Echo Park resident and photographer Amanda Marsalis, is the twelfth film distributed by Array.

Echo Park, a quiet romance, would never work onstage. Screenwriter Catalina Aguilar Mastretta prefers simple, spare dialogue over revelatory soliloquies and passionate declarations, and why wouldn’t she when she has two actors who can convey meaning and feeling with the smallest gesture and knowing look? Stars Mamie Gummer and Anthony Okuongbowa build an entire, believable relationship in the considerable moments of silence that occur between their everyday chatter over the course of a couple weeks.

Sophie (Gummer), a woman from Beverly Hills coming off a long relationship, is looking for change. She moves to the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she meets Alex (Okuongbowa), who’s in the process of moving back to London to refocus his music career. The narrative frame here is one of class – the film never discusses the fact that she’s white and he’s black – though that device is loosely undertaken. Sophie might don trendy clothes and drive a Mercedes, but Alex owns his beautiful apartment with an amazing view. They’re not exactly coming from disparate backgrounds, but that’s what Alex’s good pal Mateo (Maurice Compte) and his son Elias (Ricky Rico) are for – to put a finer point on quickly gentrifying Echo Park. But Marsalis’s picturesque view on gentrification isn’t a negative one, and so what we see is a sunny, tree-lined neighborhood with trendy cafes, artsy shops, and leafy parks where the four (rarely anyone else) wander, mostly happily, never really acknowledging how they’re contributing to the neighborhood’s evolution.

Echo Park doesn’t have a lot to say about the politically-charged images it puts on display, but it does make subtler, poignant points about relationships. When Alex pursues Sophie with “I’m leaving in a few weeks’ time, so it’s a kind of a no-risk situation,” she matter-of-factly responds, “I don’t think there’s such a thing.” She’s proven right, of course, as their short time together goes on and they quickly become fixtures in each other’s lives. This Echo Park is lost in the magic hour – that time when light is soft, skin glows, and bittersweetness is deeply felt, but left largely unspoken.

Bechdel TestPASS (barely)

  • Two named women…: Yes. In addition to Sophie, there are three other women: her mother, Julia (Helen Slater); her neighbor, Rachel (Robin Lee), and her friend’s wife, Martha (Nicola Tubiola).
  • Who talk to each other…Yes.
  • About something besides a manYes, but barely. I’m not sure Martha ever actually speaks, and Rachel only has couple lines (she and Sophie commiserate about break-ups), but Sophie and her mom (barely) touch on subjects other than Sophie’s love life. It continues to amaze me that women filmmakers write more and better roles for men in their films than they do for women.

Racial Bechdel Test: PASS (barely)

  • Two named people of color…: Yes. In addition to Alex, there are Mateo (Cuban-American Compte) and Elias (Rico), as well as Rachel, who is African American.
  • Who talk to each other…: Yes. 
  • About something other than a white person…: Yes, though barely. The three mostly discuss Alex’s relationship with Sophie, but they also talk about Alex’s impending move to London and Mateo’s relationship with Martha.

Why the Bechdel Tests?

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