A small film with big ideas, Echo Park LA is the kind of movie that sceptics write off as the stuff of bad soap opera. It’s a shame that it’s likely to be confined to the labels “well intentioned” (at best) and “unambitious” (at worst), as the film is a strong, character and incident driven drama about an area of Los Angeles rarely seen in the movies.
Echo Park is a Northeasterly suburb of central LA, a lower middle class, mainly Latino populated halfway-ground between the wealthy Southwest of the city and the more working class Eastern suburbs. It’s in this fairly non-descript hinterland that Magdalena (Emily Rios) prepares for her Quinceanera, the traditional celebration of a girl’s symbolic passage to womanhood that comes with her 15th birthday. The story takes a turn for the surprising when Magdalena experiences a virgin pregnancy. She moves out of her parent’s house and into her kind grandfather’s place, where her cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), also rejected by his family, already lives. Carlos’s life makes up the bulk of the other half of the movie’s two-way storyline, as he embarks on a somewhat ill advised affair with James and Gary (Jason L. Wood and David W. Ross), who have recently become neighbours to this reconstituted family.
There is a strong socio-political thrust to Echo Park LA, as events increasingly conspire to bring economic misfortune on the lead characters. The suburb is becoming gentrified, and the long established residents are being forced out by rising rents and in some cases eviction. The script cleverly weaves these themes into the narrative, and combines them with a few surprising twists and a wide gallery of characters that hold the attention thoroughly. The scenes involving Magdalena and Carlos, whether together or apart, work really well, despite the occasional drawbacks of Rios’ somewhat reticent performance. Garcia makes up for this with his convincing, moody portrayal of Carlos.
Technically, the film is competent if unremarkable, but it’s nicely shot in bright cinemascope, which accentuates the huge expansive blandness of so many parts of Los Angeles. The only regret I had about the movie overall is that it feels too short: I would have liked to see a slightly longer film that fleshed out a few of its rushed plot aspects and didn’t feel the need to tie up all that had gone before so hurriedly at the end. But for a low budget first film, this is as a whole far more than “well intentioned” and nowhere near “unambitious”. It’s the kind of film that should carry on being made, even if it takes a while for the mainstream to appreciate its value.