Typically, indie films are a bit rougher, maybe even a bit cruder. Indies might cut corners in a few ways that most viewers find hard to accept. The nature of low-budget storytelling is that not everything is going to get the kind of resources or attention most audiences have grown used to; and – as a consequence – I’m slow to endorse them unless there’s a very clear through-line about the film’s central message. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ll still watch them, and I’ll happily still chat them up in the circles I control – like my website – but I’m hesitant to put them up against a mainstream counterpart because they’re a generally a completely different experience.
And because indie films are made outside the construct of the studio system, they do tend to be a bit more authentic as individual yarns are spun. That may not mean that they’re more realistic; but they stick to an aesthetic that like-minded folks can appreciate more than the members of mainstream society.
Well, every now and then one comes along that kinda/sorta defies every convention; and it gets hard to crystallize what the story was truly about. Such is the case with director David Buchanan and screenwriter Paul Papadeas’ Laguna Ave, a bizarre mind trip that’s part slacker comedy, part cyberpunk, and part Tech Noir. While I think everyone involved had a particular message in mind when they put this thing together, I’m completely at a loss to discern what that was … but maybe that’s what they intended after all.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com citation:
“A disaffected former musician with a prosthetic hand is drawn into the mysterious and sinister world of his downstairs neighbor.”
I’ve been wrong before. I’ll likely be wrong again. But in my humble opinion Laguna Ave is one of those rare experimental films that can be about practically anything you want it to be.
At its core, Laguna Ave bears only a passing arthouse-style similarity to the works of, say, James Cameron, who rather famously brought what Science Fiction purists call ‘Tech Noir’ into the modern era. For the uninitiated, Tech Noir is a particular subset of SciFi that explores the pure and unbridled dangers inherent when technology becomes the destructive cultural force many see it to be. The term is meant to be a combination of ‘Noir’ sensibilities with SciFi films; and, though Laguna reasonably touches on ideas relating to how pervasive technology might push us in the direction of dystopia, the themes are a bit undercooked as they’re presented through the lens of mostly slacker characters.
Take Russell (played by Russell Steinberg) as an example. An unfortunate accident involved with his playing in a band has left him (largely) unable to play music any longer (oh, the irony of losing a hand!), and he’s since refocused his talents in the field of film editing. But his inability to stay awake on the job now finds him gainfully unemployed, a development that puts him at odds with his live-in girlfriend, Rita (Stephanie Brait). Russell can’t seem to solve any of the problems in his otherwise semi-ordinary life, and his disillusionment is driving a wedge between him and the girl of his current dreams.
In the process?
Well, Gary might be secretly leaving a trail of bodies.
Being perfectly blunt, Gary and Russell’s relationship is the only one in all of this that makes perfect sense. In a way, they’re opposites – Gary’s a tall, lean, and athletic specimen while Russ is a dour, paunchy couch potato – so it’s easily understandable how one might be drawn to the other. Gary sees his inferior as one who not only can be drawn into his ideology but also made better through technology: just as he’s been augmenting his own body to stay ahead of the future race, Gary supplies Russ with a robotic hand – an immense, oversized, cartoonish robotic hand – and the failed musician becomes smitten with his newfound power.
Still, Laguna Ave is a dish that’s hard to swallow at times. It tinkers with an awful lot of ideas – almost in a stream of consciousness kind of narrative – but never quite passes judgment on any of them. Though it’s clear that this duo is driven by an unhealthy obsession with paranoia, I’d stop short of suggesting either of them fail in their separate quests because nothing is clearly spelled out. Like Gary, we eventually learn that even Rita has been operating from a false position (I won’t spoil it as it ties in nicely with the film’s second half); but there’s still no consequence for any falsehood. Even Gary’s fate is left a bit open for interpretation (again, won’t spoil it), but I kept looking for a solid message only to come up short in all instances.
That’s not to say that the picture is flawed. It just felt incomplete to me. Its final moments defy any conventional explanation – certainly not any that I can make – and even hints that, perhaps, Gary was right all along. Unless it’s followed up upon, I’ve no way to know for certain … and I always term that a ‘lost opportunity’ in storytelling. While I’m ok with figuring out what to think about a project, I do prefer flicks that tell me what the screenwriter, director, and talent thought about their messages … and this Laguna has no specific address.
Laguna Ave (2021) was produced by House Angus Productions. The film is currently available for streaming on the Arrow Video Player.
Recommended … but hey hey hey!!! This film is not going to be for everyone. Laguna Ave is a kind of gonzo, low-budget, guerilla-filmmaking experience, and it’s one that flirts with a handful of ideas but never quite centers on any of them. Is it a statement on our times? Yes and no. Is it a comment on our unsafe reliance on technology? Well, it could be, but maybe not. Is it a cautionary tale about the dangers of deadbeat neighbors? Well … I think you see where I’m heading with this. I’m not convinced it's supposed to be about anything; maybe – like its weird cast of characters – it’s only meant to be until it's not … and there’s nothing wrong with that.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video provided me with a complimentary streaming link of Laguna Ave (2021) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.