Saturday, September 13, 2008

A San Francisco Love Story

These days its hard to find a romantic American film that isn't completely formulaic or created as a star vehicle.  When a refreshingly unique entry hits the screen, the audience is in for an unexpected shock of delight. That's how I felt while previewing Around June, which receives its world premiere on October 3rd at the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival.

Shock.  And awe.

Directed and co-written by James Savoca, this surprisingly tight package has a fascinating plot with complex characters buoyed by a solid artistic vision.  Narrated by Linne Ha, the story centers around a young woman living in San Francisco under less than ideal circumstances. 

When she was 12 years old, June's family was involved in an automobile accident which killed her mother and left her father partially paralyzed.   Although, over the years, Murry has regained most of his motor function, he persists in acting like a cripple in order to keep receiving the disability and insurance payments which keep his family afloat.  Living with Murry and June is Murry's mentally-challenged younger brother, Henry, who has always been blamed for the accident.

It doesn't take much to realize that June's father is a selfish, scared and manipulative prick. However, Henry, (who is dependent on his older brother) is a true romantic.  Meanwhile, June (who works as a waitress in a coffee shop near San Francisco's shipyards)  is suffocating.  

One rainy day, as June walks through the park, she locks eyes with a handsome Hispanic stranger whose questioning gaze rocks her world. For the first time in years she starts to feel alive.

Enhanced by Charlie Canfield's lyrical animation sequences, Around June begins so sweetly that one wonders if the film will devolve into a saccharine mess.  But Savoca has a much darker story to explore as June returns to the dysfunctional family home which has become her prison -- a prison based on truly horrible lies.

There are times when some of the scenes with June's family feel as if they were originally written for the stage.  No matter. What's fascinating about Around June is to watch how skillfully Savoca navigates past the numerous cliches and traps that could easily have sunk his film.   Savoca is such a sensitive director that he gets remarkable results from his tightly-knit ensemble. 

Shot primarily in San Francisco's Potrero Hill district and Land's End, this achingly small, independent movie is a quality product that looks like a million bucks.  The gorgeous cinematography by Peter Hawkins and stunning musical score by Didier Lean Rachou work wonders to anchor the film.  

Samaire Armstrong (June), Brad William Henke (Henry) and John Gries (Murry) create strong portraits of the dysfunctional family members.  Michael A. Goorjian has an effective cameo as Henry's group counselor.  But, as the homeless Mexican migrant worker who falls in love with June, it is newcomer Oscar H. Guerrero who glows with a radiant life force that fills the screen. Guerrero's wide-eyed portrayal of Juan Diego has a hauntingly romantic quality which will capture your heart whenever he is on the screen.

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