In “Echo Park,” photographer Amanda Marsalis, making her feature directorial debut (with a script written by Catalina Aguilar Mastretta), paints a love letter of sorts to the titular Los Angeles neighborhood, interwoven with the tale of love lost and found between two souls searching for their place. Sophie (Mamie Gummer), is an unhappy Beverly Hills Housewife-to-be when she unceremoniously cuts herself loose from her predictable life and decamps across town to the hipster hood of Echo Park. In her new neighborhood, she gets more than she expected when meeting Alex (Tony Okungbowa) to buy his couch. He’s moving back to London, you see, and the two fall into the kind of easy and deep intimacy that happens when there’s no risk of long term commitment.
Once one gets past the ridiculous premise of the film (in New York terms, the logline would be: “she left the Upper East Side to find herself in Bushwick”), and suspends a bit of disbelief (why doesn’t Sophie have any friends?), there’s actually a lot to like about “Echo Park.” Both Gummer and Okungbowa are compelling presences, and they make a charming pair with an easy, but magnetic chemistry. A sweet and naturalistic love story emerges from all the hackneyed trendy accoutrements — food trucks! Vinyl! — that sort of cloud the rest of the story. The best parts of the film are when Gummer and Okungbowa are together on screen, and one wishes that the montage depicting their courtship was more of the film itself, as all too quickly we are plunged into the complications of the life that Sophie left behind, a few miles down Sunset Boulevard.
The film is gorgeously photographed, no doubt due to Marsalis’ background as a fashion photographer, along with DP Jason McCormick. Marsalis, an Echo Park resident, captures the sun-dappled views and unique vistas of L.A.’s east side, and the film is imbued with the laid back and friendly sensibility that does make this part of the city seem like another world altogether (though there are a few moments when it feels like the “friendly” concept is entirely too oversold, this is L.A., not Mayberry and you’re not going to convince us otherwise). The soundtrack, laid with contemporary indie rock and R&B is a fine fit with the relaxed demeanor of the film, and serves to round out the dreamy and sun-kissed aesthetic.
It’s Marsalis’ direction, and the fine performances from Gummer and Okungbowa that elevate the film above what it might have been, given the issues with the script and story that hover around the edges of cliché and stereotype (the worst offender: Sophie’s mother). While the dialogue, especially the scenes between Sophie and Alex, works well, the story beats are oddly laid out, rushing through some important character and relationship establishing moments, and dwelling too long in moments where the characters are making frustrating, selfish choices. Still, the end of the film avoids falling into the traditional romantic film trap, leading to a message that’s a bit more complicated and nuanced than expected. It will be interesting to see what Marsalis can do with a more developed story and perhaps even darker material, because it’s clear she has a way with both actors and the camera.
“Echo Park” is a perfect fit for the Los Angeles Film Festival’s “LA Muse” section, as it serves not only as a love letter, but as an advertisement for the hood. If people weren’t already flocking there, this film will ensure they do — and funnily enough, real estate is one of the plot points in Sophie and Alex’s relationship, though it depicts the process of house buying in Echo Park as entirely too easy. Sophie is the kind of girl who seems to constantly be entangled with men (or at least these two), but it’s not until she’s on her own that she seems to become a real person. As it turns out for Sophie, you don’t have to go very far to get lost, and then found again. [B]