You can't fool Judge Michael Rankins. He knows that San Francisco's Harrison and Montgomery streets don't intersect.
Open your eyes. Reach out your hand. Free your heart.
An oddly moving film built around intriguing characters in a rich urban setting, everything about Harrison Montgomery works…except the ending.
Facts of the Case
Ricardo (Octavio Gómez Berríos) is the proverbial struggling artist: his erstwhile girlfriend has booted him out of both her life, and the apartment they shared; he can't scrape together the security deposit on his new digs, a tenement flat in San Francisco's seediest neighborhood, the Tenderloin; to stay afloat, he's running drugs for a small-time pusher who suspects Ricardo of skimming the take. Aside from that, Ricardo's life is…well…miserable.
Ricardo makes one friend in this sleazy setting—Lattie (Krista Ott), the little girl next door. She admires his drawings almost as much as Ricardo secretly admires her mother Margo (Melora Walters, Boogie Nights), a lonely woman so desperate for love she's shacked up with an abusive boor who belittles her at every turn.
A serendipitous fillip of fate crosses Ricardo's path with that of Harrison Montgomery (Martin Landau, City of Ember), the senile old man who lives in the apartment directly beneath Ricardo's. Harrison—though he resides in decaying surroundings—might or might not have more than $5 million in lottery winnings squirreled away in his home. After Ricardo and his buddy Maurice (Brandon Scott, Grey's Anatomy) lose a chunk of drug profits in one of the goofiest robberies ever filmed, Ricardo decides to replace the stolen loot with some of crazy old Harrison's stash—if it indeed exists—before his dope dealer boss catches wise.
But this is the Tenderloin, where things aren't always what they appear to be.
Often when viewing a low-budget independent film, one can't help but envision how much better the results might have been had the filmmakers been blessed with greater working capital. Harrison Montgomery is that rare bargain-basement production that actually benefits from its humble resources. Given more money to play with, director Daniel Dávila and his collaborators might have been tempted to apply unnecessary gloss to San Francisco's sordid Tenderloin district. Instead, shoestring cinema reinforces Harrison Montgomery's gritty realism.
So too do the performances, which are uniformly excellent. With the exception of Martin Landau, whose title role amounts to an extended cameo, most of the key players in Harrison Montgomery are either talented character actors vaguely familiar from other, more renowned productions, or complete unknowns. The best of the former is Melora Walters, who shines as the put-upon single mom; of the latter, young Krista Ott shows genuineness and subtle brilliance in her screen debut as Walters' daughter. Octavio Gómez Berríos brings much needed vulnerability and humor to his leading role as Ricardo, the young artist trying to make the best of his ragged life.
The screenplay, crafted by director Dávila and Karim Ahmad from an original script by Cliff Traiman, clearly has a message to communicate. It's the journey toward the message, however, that makes Harrison Montgomery worth seeing. The characters are simply drawn, but they behave in interesting yet consistent ways, even when their actions strike the viewer as stupidly self-destructive. Mirroring the environment in which the story plays out, Dávila and company imbue the dramatis personae with a hard-worn, earthy realism that rings true from beginning until almost the end.
Which is why the film's denouement falls so flat. Harrison Montgomery generates such raw emotional honesty for most of its running time that its hard left turn into fantasy—the details of which will not be revealed here—seems like a cheat. This story does not need a magical deus ex machina to drive home its point. In fact, introducing this disparate element calls that point into question. The mechanism chosen by Dávila to present his ultimate message of hope negates that message by suggesting that hope can't exist in the real world. It's an unsatisfying approach that left this reviewer feeling let down, as though the filmmakers had made a promise they couldn't figure out how to deliver—or worse, they opted for the Hollywood ending in a story Hollywood would never have made. Any screenwriter worth his or her salt could have suggested a half-dozen ways the movie could achieve its moralistic goals without resorting to the ridiculous.
On its way to its troubling end, Harrison Montgomery shows flashes of skillful moviemaking. One of the film's most effective touches is its use of animated vignettes, beautifully illustrated in pencil by storyboard artist Michelle Collier and animated by Matt Gulley. These sequences, used for the most part to provide historical context for the lives of various characters, stand out for both their subtlety and their beauty. I'd love to see Collier and Gulley team up for an animated short subject. Given the right vehicle, they might come up with a classic in the vein of Jimmy T. Murakami's The Snowman or When the Wind Blows.
Director Dávila deserves kudos for his exceptional sense of location. As a longtime Bay Area resident, this writer has passed through the Tenderloin on numerous occasions. Dávila presents this neighborhood—an uncomfortable place under the best of circumstances, and genuinely terrifying at its worst—with unflinching veracity, yet with an obvious love for the often forgotten people forced by circumstances to inhabit it. They would be proud to see the film Dávila made…assuming they could afford a DVD player. And a TV set. And electricity.
IndiePix Films presents Harrison Montgomery with a solid DVD release. The audiovisual presentation of the film shows its low-budget roots, but is clear, clean, and watchable.
Three of the film's behind-the-scenes principals—director Daniel Dávila, his scripting collaborator Karim Ahmad, and producer Catherine Dávila (who also appears on camera as Ricardo's ex-girlfriend Denise; the credits suggest that a fair portion of the extended Dávila clan contributed in some capacity to this movie's creation)—team up for an audio commentary. The participants' enthusiasm for the project cuts through their laidback verbal style. Like most indie commentaries, there's a bit too much focus on the challenges of hardscrabble filmmaking and too little on the film itself, but still, it's a decent listen.
Harrison Montgomery isn't the first film to share a stunningly good story only to veer wrong at its conclusion. Daniel Dávila's debut feature shows a wealth of heart and soul, as well as a true affinity for its subject matter and surroundings. It's worthy of attention—and repeat showings—even if it frustrates the viewer in the end.
Guilty of stumbling at the finish line, but exonerated thanks to the
excellence of all that goes before. The Judge would assign 100 hours of
community service in the Tenderloin, but finds the requirement to have been
satisfied. Court is adjourned.
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